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.
November 25, 2009 10:50 AM   Subscribe

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 and 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.

Additional factors/complications/background:

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.
posted by cheapskatebay to Religion & Philosophy (28 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
From the point of view of a believing church member, we (I'm using the editorial "we" here) would rather have you stay and be honest about your state of belief than leave. It's probably true that there are others in the pews who feel as you do. Even the more conservative churches have members who are there for reasons other than devotion to God.

I suggest coming clean to the pastor. I bet he won't be shocked and appalled, and you might be surprised at how well he understands where you're coming from. After all, that sort of thing is in his job description. I think even the most devout pastors would rather you stayed. After all (they reason), there's always the chance that something might happen down the line to change your mind. What I've heard pastors say about nonbelievers in church is that at least they are being exposed to the message, which is better than nothing.

It's a funny thing to say, but from many years of church involvement (and with fairly conservative churches), I don't think being an unbeliever in church is that big of a deal -- as long as you are respectful of others' belief and not trying to de-convert them. You can take comfort in your love for the congregation and the good effect it has on your children. Just relax and leave the theology out of it for now. After all, your service to others is one of the main things the God you don't believe in wants from us!
posted by lazydog at 11:29 AM on November 25, 2009 [9 favorites]

I too was Presbyterian, later turned agnostic. I still remained a member and attended church as if nothing was different. For me, the motivation for going to church had never been about proving to anyone that I was a believer or "showing God" how faithful I was. It was because I loved the people there and the things we did for the community. I felt as if I was a part of something.

I reconciled the dissenting beliefs with the fact that I am "spiritual but not religious." I know you said you're not spiritual, but I think my view of spiritual might be different than what you're thinking of. To me, it means that I want there to be more to my life than "today I woke up, went to work, and went to bed," every single day. This doesn't imply there is some sort of higher power at work, it just means that I am living beyond the mundane, day-to-day activities that my life appears to be composed of. It means that I take time to help someone, both because I want to make them feel better and because it makes me feel better about myself. It also means I take a moment and appreciate how the cool grass feels against my bare feet. It is living purposefully.

The conclusion I came to then, was that being a part of my church was an important part of this goal. It was helping me appreciate my life and helping me contribute to others'. At first I felt as you do, that I was being deceitful and unethical. But ultimately, I asked myself if the members of my congregation would reject me on account of my definition of spiritual. And I doubted they would.

It's what you do that speaks loudest. If you are actively involved in your church, and you love the people in it, and you love the things you're doing, then you belong there. It sounds like you just need to accept the fact that you don't fit the traditional religious label. There's nothing wrong with that. In order to really live our lives as we think we should, we need to define what that means to us. Sometimes that means arriving a definition which does not fit the norm. But that is okay. If you think you need to, I'm sure you can define the elements of religion in your own terms (I've heard it said that the father, the son, and the holy ghost refer to mind, body, and spirit, for example). And then you really do believe.

If you love your congregation, it would be a shame to leave. They probably care about you too and would hate to lose you.
posted by moutonoir at 11:31 AM on November 25, 2009 [4 favorites]

please go see your pastor. bring him this question. he will help.

also you say you are "someone for whom religion simply isn’t important" but that doesn't seem true from your question.
posted by dpx.mfx at 11:34 AM on November 25, 2009 [2 favorites]

Try talking to a cleric of your church (I think Presbyterians call them ministers?) about this. It may make sense for you to stay, but leave your leadership rôle. Crises of faith are a speciality of clergymen.
posted by Electrius at 11:37 AM on November 25, 2009

This isn't an easy position to be in. I have a similar issue myself with our super-progressive Catholic church. The ritual of the Church may be to my advantage, though, as I can look at everything through the lens of community and ritual to explain away my reasons for speaking words of belief with everyone else. However, I still get the pangs of guilt when I profess "my beliefs" before everyone else.

You mentioned that your pastor was young and new, so I don't know how much good this would do you, but you still might want to talk with him. You don't have to approach him on the assumption that you are leaving the church, instead approach him about everything that is causing your conflicts.

When I had stopped taking communion for similar reasons, my girlfriend had me speak with our priest and he was able to put things in a perspective I hadn't considered before. My concern was that since I didn't believe that I shouldn't take communion. His perspective was that those who couldn't believe are the ones who need communion the most.

You seem to be pretty adamant about never believing, so our positions aren't identical as there is a bit of "maybe he'll come around someday" going on in my case, but it may still be worth a try. It sounds like you have found a place that fits what you believe in every aspect except for religion, so if you can find a way to keep it in your life that would probably be for the best. You seem to recognize that, too. Talk with your pastor and see if you can come up with anything that will work together.
posted by cimbrog at 11:39 AM on November 25, 2009 [1 favorite]

Everyone has different reasons to go to church, but I think community is one of the best.

Just remember, the only person who judges you is yourself.
posted by infinitefloatingbrains at 11:52 AM on November 25, 2009 [1 favorite]

Keep in mind that "God" or more appropriatly the idea of god can take many forms. I am a bad Catholic, but still on the very rare occasion that I do go to a church thing, I appreciate the coherant, positive message that can be ralayed to a congregation through the use of god. Basically teh idea of god and bible stories and whatnot are to me like Aesop's fables wherein they are not always literal, but more tangible ways to give lessons about intangible things (morals). Though I don't believe in some misty blob in the sky known as god, I do believe in teh benefits of love, kindness, helping fellow man, etc etc etc that the church advocates using god. For the Catholic church, I also disagree with some of the lessons / ideas they use god to teach, but for you this does not seem to be a problem.
posted by WeekendJen at 11:52 AM on November 25, 2009

It sounds like you have found something that meets your social and spiritual needs. I get why you would feel kind of bad about attending church when you're not a believer, but in my opinion, the best thing organized religion can do is to provide us with a way to do good in the world. It's just one way, but it can be really effective. It sounds like you are really happy in your church and you feel like you are able to do a lot of good there. I think leaving the church would cause more unhappiness for you and your family and friends.

I was raised in the Anglican church, although I stopped attending when I was a teenager. My parents are still regular members though, and they do all kinds of social justice volunteering through their church. I do mine through secular groups, but it all comes down to the same thing, in my opinion: to meet our social and spiritual needs, and to do good in the world. People just choose different ways to do it. It sounds like you've already found the one that works best for you.

Like others above, I'd encourage you to meet with your priest (?)/minister as well. I bet this isn't the first time this has come up for a member of your congregation. Who knows, maybe your minister has gone through this too. It's not unheard of.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 11:56 AM on November 25, 2009

I agree that you should take this to one of your pastors. It sounds like you need a break, more than anything.

What I would also suggest, however, is to consider other dimensions of the faith and see if what you believe fits in there. I personally believe in a godlike force that may or may not exist or have an effect on our daily life, but for all intents and purposes, I'm pretty much agnostic. It's even worse with the two other parts of the Trinity; forget the part about Jesus dying for my sins. I mean, really? I even got through my UCC confirmation, and the associated writing of my personal creed, without admitting that I didn't believe this. Nobody cared.

But particularly because my family has a strong social justice background, I revere Jesus much like I would Gandhi. His teachings remain valid regardless of whether his miracles existed or not. Your idea of what "worshipping" Jesus means might be a little vague right now, but that's okay.

The community and spirit of the church is so important, though, and the feelings you feel for them don't have to be dependent upon your belief in God. Really.

You might find some interesting commentary at Real Live Preacher, which is the blog of a wonderfully thoughtful liberal Baptist pastor in Texas. If he can manage to wander in his faith without making himself look silly among THOSE Christians, surely you can find a place to belong!

I'm kind of excited for you, actually. This is a great chance for you to find new dimensions of what is meaningful in your life, and that's pretty special.
posted by Madamina at 12:06 PM on November 25, 2009 [1 favorite]

In the great scheme of things, your religion seems to be a source of good for you personally, for others, for your family, for your community. I would say be truthful with your wife, be truthful with your pastor (or whatever) and go right on ahead and be a church member.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 12:08 PM on November 25, 2009

The most important part of your question, to me, is this: What I really want, to be honest, is to remain a church member.

I grew up in the Presbyterian church, and my parents were members and part of that crowd that always ended up volunteering for every committee. They burned out and got sick of church politics when I was a young teen, and while it was a little awkward for me as their kid who still attended the church, I knew it was the best thing for them. On the opposite hand, it sounds like remaining in the church is the best thing for you. The advice you've gotten in this thread is great - my advice was going to be to talk to your wife but it sounds like you've already done that :)

One of the differences between the Presbyterian church and other churches is that the pastor is the soul of the church, but the committees are the heart and the church board is the head. Speaking to your pastor is a good first step but I think at some point you need to bring what is in your heart to the other Elders of the church. You feel you have been dishonest and I think you are considering leaving because it is the easier of two options. The harder option is to open yourself up despite the criticism and negative attention you expect to get. This may result in the mutual decision to remove some of your responsibilities, but that does not mean you have to give up the comforts and traditions of weekly service, if you still want them. No one is going to turn you away at the door, and from the Presbyterian churches I've been to, all the gossip will at least be behind your back :)
posted by muddgirl at 12:23 PM on November 25, 2009 [1 favorite]

I wanted to address another part of your question seperately:

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.

This is incredibly common in Presbyterian churches, even liberal ones. It is a function of having a young and perhaps inexperienced pastor, along with the fact that the Presbyterian polity structure works better for larger organizations with lots of people to volunteer. It takes a lot of concerted effort on the part of the church board to turn this sort of decline around - attracting young families with roots in the community is a difficult task. It's not uncommon for the first sign of burn-out to be this feeling that nothing you're doing is "helping" anything.
posted by muddgirl at 12:29 PM on November 25, 2009

I think you need to talk this out with your wife. Is it more important to attend this particular church, or is it more important to attend a church together? If the latter, you might want to look into Unitarian Universalism. It is a faith that embraces both liberal Christians and atheists (as well as a wide diversity of other viewpoints). It would mean starting over in a new congregation, but you could both feel true to your beliefs, and UU congregations tend to have great education programs for kids. If staying in the Presbyterian church is more important to your wife, she'll have to make her peace with your feelings and respect the fact that you don't want to misrepresent herself.
posted by rikschell at 12:31 PM on November 25, 2009

I don't know if this is helpful, as I know very little about being a Presbyterian, but as a Jew, I have no problem with not believing in God and being an active member of a synagogue (although I am not currently active), and I know there are other Jews who believe similarly.
posted by leahwrenn at 1:03 PM on November 25, 2009

What I read is that you're disappointed that you've been dishonest, and not just with yourself but with other members of this congregation and 'leaders' of same, pretty much everyone in this piece of your life. And not just a lie of omission -- though there's been plenty of that, too -- but a lie of commission, a flat-out, bald-faced lie, or, rather, a series of them, over time.

So. What do you do when you tell a lie?

You go to the other person and tell them "I told you a lie. I'm sorry. I'm going to do all that I can to prevent this from happening again. Please forgive me." Um, that is, provided it's not going to bring them harm in some way to own up to it. And if it IS going to bring them harm to do so, then you've just got to carry it, part of the price of being a civilized human being.

Which it damn sure looks to me that you are.

Write a letter to all involved parties that won't be hurt by your admission. Send it to them, let them read it, consider it. I don't think you need to talk to your pastor/minister/whatever -- you know what you want to do, you know what you've done, you know what you wish to amend. And you needn't talk to your wife, you don't need her benediction or approval. All of this is assuming that you've considered carefully the ramifications of this act to your wife and children, but it appears to me that you've done that.

After you send the letters to any and all affected players (time it so it hits their mailboxes on Monday), that following Sunday you stand up in church and declare in church (in front of god and everyone -- har!) what you've told us, and what you've now told most of them, in your letters.

And then -- Ask them what they'd like you to do.

Tell them that you're willing to stay -- that you *want* to stay -- but you're no longer going to be dishonest with them, or yourself. Tell them straight up that this isn't 'a crisis of faith' or anything of the sort, that it's not a crisis in your life at all, aside from your dishonesty with them and yourself. Tell them that you're perfectly happy with your belief -- this will preclude any/all mopes from coming by to 'save' you or whatever, though I suspect that there's a lot less of that wackiness in your congregation than in others.

And then live with the resulting decisions which they arrive at, so long as they are decisions which will allow you to live with integrity. So I guess live with the decisions which you all arrive at.

You'll be a beacon of integrity in that community. You will be so, so trusted, whether you stay in the church or not.

That's how it looks from over here on Riverside Drive at 3:08 on a beautiful Wednesday afternoon; I hope it's as pretty where you're at as it is here in Austin.

posted by dancestoblue at 1:09 PM on November 25, 2009 [2 favorites]

Atheist here. And gospel is my favorite kind of music.

It seems like your primary conflict is one with yourself, this ongoing and increasingly burdensome feeling as though you are "living a lie." It doesn't seem that there is much external pressure on you. As you have said, you feel the church and its congregation are open to your questions of faith and the fact that your faith may not mirror their own. Your wife is supportive. Is it fair to say that the problem lies in your questioning the validity of your own feelings in the context of your day-to-day life?

You like the church and the community around it, the role that it has in your family's life, and even your own role in the church. Your church obviously respects and admires your service to the extent that they elected you to the Elder position you hold. You may "feel" your internal conflict, but you certainly don't seem to be "living" that conflict in ways that are problematic for anyone else. The situation would be different if you were consistently being asked to perform duties or support positions that were in conflict with your internal values, but doesn't seem to be the case. Your actions seem to be consistent with both your values and your church's.

So why change course? Faith, or the lack thereof, is a very personal issue. You are entitled to your own philosophical growth and maturation, whatever direction that should be in. We all are. It's what living is all about. From reading your question, it doesn't sound like you have a need for all those around you to share your exact beliefs in order for you to continue believing in them. You don't need them to be atheists to continue having a rich shared community life (as it seems to be that church plays a large role your specific community life). Should they ever profess a NEED for you to change who you are in order to continue contributing to their community, well then, maybe your problem begins to solve itself.

When a religion cannot tolerate and embrace the good, loving actions of a person, it quickly reveals its true values.

You have, in your own question, said what you would like...to stay in your church. Until they give you a reason to leave, I would do just that. It doesn't sound like staying puts your values at risk. And you don't need them to stop being who they are in order to continue the rich community life you now have. You are not a malignant soul that is covertly fostering spiritual rot from within. I think it is reasonable to live confidently knowing that you are prioritizing your life and which values fit into it and how. If those around you start demanding that you do something different than that, then it will be time to leave. Should that day come, they will be able to mark it on the calendar as the day the congregation truly started to rot from within.
posted by nickjadlowe at 1:27 PM on November 25, 2009

You might find some interesting commentary at Real Live Preacher, which is the blog of a wonderfully thoughtful liberal Baptist pastor in Texas.

Thank you, Madamina! I was trying to remember the name of that site. Cheapskatebay, I think you might find it quite interesting and helpful, especially "The Preacher's Story."
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 2:16 PM on November 25, 2009

It sounds like you might do well by looking into Unitarian-Universalist fellowships. Or, stay right where you are and continue what you like about the getting together, etc. and just accept your disbelief. There's more like you than you probably realize. However.....

While not a believer in the biblical "God," I have a problem with the rise of atheism centered largely around the writings of Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens, etc. Not that I don't like their books and like what they have to say about Christianity; but I think many people are now believing that their choices about spiritual and philosophical matters (hard to separate) are:

1) Believe in "God."

2. Don't believe in "God."

How wrong this is! First, we have to define the "God" we don't believe in. I think most people in America when they begin to call themselves "atheists" are really just rejecting the "God" of the Christian bible and throwing in all the other personal Gods of other religions as well. Fair enough, but that's still not quite atheism. As I already wrote, I don't believe in the God of the Christian bible, but I still can't accept the rigid atheism of Dawkins, Harris and the rest who seem to reject everything that we can't prove scientifically. That leaves very little room for the "fantastic" or anything that is beyond "science" (as we understand science today). Many think, "Oh, that makes you an agnostic!" No, it doesn't. I call myself a Mysterian - one who rejects the organized religions and their Gods, but also accepts that we will never know the truth of issues of God and Religion during our earthly lives. Yet, and this is the key, Mysterians believe that there is a mystery and it's very real. The truth of our existence on this planet may be closer to what we consider science fiction tales than anything from the bible. I believe, with all that I have, that the mystery is so profound, so beyond our grasp of comprehension that it will always be -- a mystery. How can I call myself an atheist and still believe what I just described? I simply cannot reject the possibilities of unfathomable power (or powers) that control and/or observe our planet like a scientist might observe, and occasionally tinker with, a petri dish?

Throw out organized religion? I'm with you all the way.
Throw out God? Maybe, but which God?
Throw out all Gods? If they are part of fantasy tales from organized religion, yes.
Throw out the possibility of something unthinkable creating and observing us? No way. I may not call that "God." But some would. Does terminology matter?

I would hope you would keep on doing what makes you comfortable, and reject the voice within that shames you because of your rational thinking and questioning God. We're all questioners, we're all seekers, we're all passing through - and we all can believe what we want while doing what we want. If that means rejecting the Christian God yet still enjoying the fellowship and social camaraderie with the local church you belong to - so be it. The purity police on both sides of this "atheism" question may question this. So what? There's not just two sides, there are potentially thousands of shapes to form your own personal "spiritual" niche within your own life.

Good luck!
posted by Gerard Sorme at 2:26 PM on November 25, 2009

I'm currently. . . well, "seeking" is probably the best way to describe where I am spiritually. I was raised atheist, and now I go to a Congregationalist church.

If you want to stay a church member, and it sounds like you do, I'd consider this: God is or isn't, whether you believe in God or not. Belief is a tricky thing to try and legislate. But what you can maybe focus on is, to sound a little ridiculous, what Jesus would do. Do you believe that what Jesus has to say (or anyway what the Bible says Jesus had to say) is worthwhile? Do you think that following those suggestions is a way to live a better, happier life in a kinder, more just world? If you do, then I say you can continue to be a church member with absolutely no qualms or reservations, regardless of what you believe about the divinity of Jesus or the concept of divinity at all.
posted by KathrynT at 2:27 PM on November 25, 2009 [2 favorites]

Write a letter to all involved parties that won't be hurt by your admission.

Don't do this. It's overkill in the extreme, and will come off weird, self-aggrandising and hurtful. The only party hurt by your 'admission' is you and (perhaps) your god.

If you attend the kind of church that welcomes such a wide variety of diversity, what makes you think your own diversity would be unwelcome there? As you yourself have pointed out, you are still the same person who rocked on on Sunday a year ago, and everybody seemed to like and value that person.

Many people are familiar with the saying that God is love. The obvious love you bear for your family, friends and congregation is - belief or no - a worthwhile, a valuable, a good thing. Why throw up an obstacle for expressing that affection and love when it's not necessary? Jesus himself was cool with hanging out with many people of all stripes, colours and beliefs, and whether he was a messiah or an ordinary dude, the philosophy of acceptance and generosity he preached is well in line with your actions towards your family and congregation. Thus, you have the most important thing in common with them.
posted by smoke at 2:36 PM on November 25, 2009 [2 favorites]

I think that you should tell your church and try to stay. it sounds like the only thing wrong is the lie. being a religious agnostic isn't unheard of -- and I have an anecdote to back me up.

one of my dearest friends is a Catholic agnostic. she is very active in her church: she's doing graduate studies in theology right now, and if all goes according to plan she'll be following a spiritual calling for the rest of her life. not because she believes in God, but because of the philosophy and practice of love the Catholic church holds and the good that it can do in the world. religion is important to her insofar as it helps her to live a good life, here and now.

(on preview: what smoke said about God being love sounds like a good description of her beliefs.)

it works for her and it works for her community. I don't see why it couldn't work for you too.
posted by spindle at 2:39 PM on November 25, 2009

Just to be clear to people who may not be familiar with Presbyterianism, when the OP became a member of the Presbyterian church, he likely followed a procedure very similar to this one:
Once you have asked the session for membership, the session will arrange for you to meet with them. This is simply a time for us to get better acquainted and to “formalize” the covenant between you and the church. You will be asked to tell about your “faith journey.” You will want to tell the session about your experience with Christ, how you came to accept him as your Savior, and about your journey to follow him as Lord. The pastor will ask you four questions:

1. Do you believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, that he died for our sins, that he was buried, and that he rose again on the third day?
2. Have you received Jesus as your Savior, and do you desire to follow him as your Lord?
3. Will you serve the Church of Jesus Christ with love, intelligence, gifts, and dedication?
4.Have you been baptized?
Becoming a member is not an automatic thing. I was not a member of the church although I attended one for 8 years.
posted by muddgirl at 2:44 PM on November 25, 2009 [1 favorite]

Many others have been in the same pickle you are, and I'm going to guess others around you are there right now. Somebody's going to break the ice. Since you are thoughtful, compassionate, concerned about the well-being of others, honest, respectful of differences and articulate, I'd suggest it be you. Some around you will say it makes no difference to them, some will give you the cold shoulder, some will be tremendously relieved. You'll feel a variety of things as well. It'll take time to play out. There's no right time, so pick a time that clearly isn't the worst time and dive in. Good luck in whatever happens.
posted by eccnineten at 5:22 PM on November 25, 2009 [1 favorite]

I know the feeling of being uncomfortable as a nonbeliever in church, but think you should stay, and stay quiet.

In a liberal Protestant church like yours, I am sure there a lot of members who have no more religious belief than you do. And there's even a larger share - most of them - that do not particularly care what you believe or don't believe.

You enjoy being part of the congregation, and believe that it's good for your family. Your lack of faith isn't a shortcoming or a sin, it's just who you are. Talk to your minister if your "dishonesty" bothers you, but I sure wouldn't make a public profession out of it. The rest of the church really doesn't care what you do or don't believe, or that you may have misrepresented your beliefs. They're just glad you're there. Your family would be glad you're there, too.

My own situation is only slightly different: I didn't join the church when my wife did. But that made no difference to the members' acceptance of me, and it sure didn't keep me from receiving many volunteer assignments, even leadership positions.

You seem to feel a need to make a break. I suggest you make it internally. Forgive yourself for the "white lie" of your membership, and get on with doing the good work of the church.
posted by Snerd at 5:36 PM on November 25, 2009

Lots of thoughtful engagement with the question here.

To me, the question shows feeling and worry about personal 'fraudulence'. As a growing atheist over the years, I couldn't say the things expected of me without feeling a bit wretched inside. I stopped going, even though the community of the church had been, on the whole, a socially benevolent aspect of my life.

Some people can detach themselves from the ideology and enjoy the enactments of faith without experiencing the mental conflict and dissonance. Great, and I see that it has reaped some rewards for many posters here. But... I can't spend hours of my life going through the motions, feeling like a liar. I believe my struggle in life is to find a way to be truly myself in whatever situation I am in. Detaching from church ideology [Catholic] was one area I felt I had to tackle in this endeavour.

OP, why don't you take a bit of a break from the more ritualised acts of belief in your church, like Sunday services, and keep up with some of the community elements that you enjoy? Tell the people who need to know, but don't make a big fuss about it. And take up something that is just for you - you sound like you do a lot of living for others.
posted by honey-barbara at 8:57 PM on November 25, 2009

I'm not sure you've had many helpful answers yet. But, perhaps I can add some insight.

I know exactly what you mean about never having been a believer, because I was the same. It never occurred to me to believe in God, and I've not had nuch cause to think about it in the course of my life. Like you say,(which many people in this thread seem to have ignored) you are not having a crisis of faith, it is not something that you are missing or that comes naturally to you.

You are a plain and simple atheist. As such you should leave your church, because professing your faith, or even dangling the prospect of you recovering your faith, is unethical. You respect the congregation and its work more by not going. If you value the accounting work you do for them, there is no reason why you can't keep doing that.

Stop worrying. The congregation's decline is not your fault, nor is t in your power to rectify it or aggravate it - this relates to broader societal issues over which no individual has control. There are plenty of other organisations you can work with in your community if you would like to.

Be very clear, when people ask why you weren't at church or when you talk to those friends you will want to tell before they notice you aren't there any more. Say, "I won't be coming to church any more, but I hope we can still be friends". When people ask why, say "because that is my choice".

You know your own mind. So do not enter into protracted debates about the nature of faith, God, or your prospects of redemption with members of your former congregation. This will only encourage them to try harder and harder to convince you of your folly, which in the end will just mean more unnecessary stress on you and your relationships. Which in turn will make them harder to preserve.
posted by munchbunch at 9:16 AM on November 28, 2009

Would taking a break from your duties be helpful? I'm thinking that you might say to the other people on your committees, etc that you're a bit overworked at the moment (white lie) and need to back off a bit from the things you've taken on. Set yourself a period of time (3 months? longer?) and use it to find out how you feel about *not* being involved with the organisation side of it. Maybe see if there are non-church activities that are similar - maybe with a non-profit group? Keep attending church, and engaging in the social side of things, unless that would be more difficult than a clean break. Hopefully it will become clear that either you don't need to be involved so closely, and can gradually fade out while maintaining friendships, or that you actually can't do without this in your life, in which case you can step back in.

I'm an atheist myself, but I know what you mean about the benefits of being part of a really great community, and how hard it is to work out what you owe the group. A little distance may help bring clarity.

In my opinion, it seems like the lie might be too much to deal with, but I don't see the need to make a huge community-wide declaration of what's going on in your head, at least not at first before you're really sure what you want to do.
posted by harriet vane at 1:16 AM on November 30, 2009

You seem to be in the grasp of a view of God that is limited by the definition that you grew up with. The lack of faith is really a lack of belief. Belief is an intellectual rationalization of something and is either accurate with know fact or not. Belief in either religion or science is subject to the winds of what we hold to be fact in any moment, for example at one time it was a common belief that the earth was flat. Belief in God has nothing to do with the reality of God.

The God that is presented in most churches is a finite God. One that is easily explained and serves many purposes for the organization we call the church. Most of the namesakes of the major religions of the world do not believe in these made in the image of man versions of God. I remember sitting in a religion class and the professor introduced the class to cognitive theology. The idea was to apply concepts of psychology to God. I was appalled!

It was in that moment that I understood what Nietzsche meant when he said "God is dead and we are the ones that killed him." If God is who The Bible or any other scriptures say God is then it is impossible for our finite brains to really grasp that.

It is like a flea trying to understand particle physics. Even though the flea is made of of sub atomic particles and the flea is impacted by the laws of physics it has no concept of them. It can experience them in every moment. In fact there is not a moment that they are not acting on the flea. If you take this flea and put him in a jar and close the lid the laws of physics will limit the height the flea can jump. Eventually the flea will stop trying to any higher than the lid you can take the lid off the jar and the flea will stay in the jar. His experiences have created a false limitation. In reality the limitation is no longer there. This is how we behave towards God.

We impose artificial limitations on God through moralizing, dogma and doctrine expressed in the medium of language in so doing we loose the actual experience of who God truly is. What we end up with is a crude rendition of God which is as close to the reality of God as a triangle drawn by a small child with a crayon is to a mountain. This is how our beliefs limit us.

Faith is distinct. Faith is a choice. Beyond reason or fact and the limitations of language. It draws on desire for truth. There is no fact that proves or disproves the existence of God. Faith in atheism and faith in God just are just two different choices.

Agnosticism is the acknowledgement of this. That you can't know for a fact if God exists. This is really the first step toward faith. In this you are better off than all of the believers who know that God does or does not exists. Their belief is an artificial limitation.

The question for you is are you willing to take the next step, open your heart and mind to the possibility of experiencing God and experiencing truth. This can only be done in an honest inquiry. It is a journey and not a destination. This is where contemplation, prayer and meditation come into play. If you seek then you shall find. You may not find anything or you may be surprised by what you find but the journey to what ever truth you come to will be the part of the reward. Faith is a choice.

What ever you choose I wish you the best!
posted by empty vessel at 6:58 PM on December 8, 2009

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