The cookies in the lobby are not helping, either.
November 30, 2009 9:52 AM   Subscribe

I'm scared I'm becoming Christian. Help?

It isn't that I think there is anything wrong about being religious. If other people are psyched about God, that's great, good for them.

My parents are lapsed Catholics, my grandparents devout Catholics, and my siblings and I are nothing. I came to the conclusion at an early age that I am -nowhere- near intelligent enough to say whether God exists. I certainly don't believe humans were cast out of a magical garden because a rib-woman ate a piece of fruit a talking snake told her to eat. I've read the Bible and taking a lot of it literally seems silly to me.

The problem is, I'm worried I'm starting to get sucked in. Every other Saturday night I bring a group of disabled people to a non-denominational Christian church. At first I was annoyed. Then the next week less annoyed. Now months later...I'm looking forward to the service. Last night, I was at our city's holiday parade, and baby Jesus went by on the flatbed of a truck, with Mary and Joseph kneeling over him...and I started crying. What the hell.

My core beliefs (and disbeliefs) haven't changed, I don't think. But I'm getting scared. I don't want to be brainwashed. I certainly don't want to be one of the sort who, when asked about the love of their lives, go on for 45 minutes about Jesus. Not bringing these people to church isn't an option, in fact it's part of my job. I don't have to participate in the service but I do have to sit with them.

So what do I do? I'm scared to talk to anyone I know and have them encourage 'my relationship with God'. I don't particularly feel like I'm missing anything spiritually, I'm pretty happy with all areas of my life to be honest. Why is this happening? Do I need to go have my hormone balances checked?
posted by Syllables to Religion & Philosophy (46 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
So what if you happen to not totally hate one part of your job that you have to do? It doesn't mean you're gonna get brainwashed. You're probably just enjoying feeling part of a community. In order to not get brainwashed, just remember to look at yourself in the mirror while you're brushing your teeth and ask yourself, Are my core beliefs changing yes/no. Then say "This is part of my job, it's fine, but that's all." If you do that every day you'll stop yourself from going down any kind of slippery slope.
posted by amethysts at 9:58 AM on November 30, 2009

Could you be missing something in your life that religion seems to offer? You could look at some of the discussion of atheism on askme (not all of it is helpful), such as this or this or this one which I found very interesting. Good luck.
posted by Mngo at 10:00 AM on November 30, 2009

Don't worry about the Baby Jesus. Christian symbols and stories pack a punch; that's why the religion is so successful. A lot of pagans get teary eyed about the Star of Bethlehem, without necessarily accepting Jesus Christ as their personal savior. I bet you get teary eyed in the movies, too, and those people don't even exist.

You are also not obliged to accept the whole package. You might decide that Christians are nice people who take care of each other without believing that God exists. Or you could believe that God exists but who can say more than that. You could also believe in Jesus Christ without believing in the literal word of the Bible. Go to any Episcopalian Church (or Lord knows, any Unitarian Church) and you'll find people who aren't even sure Christ literally existed, and don't care, because religion for them is about their relationship with transcendence, not about what happened when.

Religion won't brainwash you. Signs of brainwashing would be sleep deprivation, being cut off from your nonbelieving friends and self-criticism sessions. Short of that, you will believe whatever you believe; no one can make you believe something you don't believe. Just being exposed to nice people who enjoy their religion can, at worst, open your mind a bit to another way of experiencing the world.
posted by musofire at 10:05 AM on November 30, 2009 [11 favorites]

Maybe someone will have a less cynical answer, but I think it's your version of a "2 minute hate"; you're getting caught up in the emotions of a powerfully charged moment with everyone around you. Much like non-fans at sports games.

This sounds substantially different from you realizing you want to praise Jesus or whomever while you're alone in your house.
posted by anti social order at 10:08 AM on November 30, 2009 [1 favorite]

Oh, for crying out loud. Going to church and occasionally enjoying it doesn't mean you're brainwashed. Being a Christian doesn't necessarily mean you're brainwashed either. Have you thought about doing some independent study on Christianity so that you're at least informed? Then you can decided whether or not what you're feeling is just being caught up in the moment or if some of this is actually resonating with you.

That said... I'm a Christian. I admit I don't go to church all that often, but even when I did, I never usually got emotional during the services or performances. I believed what I believed, but I never really felt like I was a part of the church community, so my emotions weren't usually affected by their displays of emotions. If I had a theory, it would be that you're just enjoying the community. And there's NOTHING wrong with that.
posted by katillathehun at 10:09 AM on November 30, 2009 [12 favorites]

I cry when I go to the Day of the Dead parade and the drumming troupes go by, and I am in no danger of becoming some kind of Indo-American pagan. Perhaps, at that moment, seeing a representation of a mother and son (Mary and Jesus) made you feel something, completely aside from its religious representation. I've cried in more churches than you can shake a stick at, and I'm at best a small-c cultural christian, and no kind of religious one.

And I know lots of Christians who aren't brainwashed and who never talk (to me, at least) about their relationship with Our Lord. Heck, I know a couple of Christian ministers who never talk about their relationship with That Guy (or His Dad). So in that respect, I think your fears are unfounded and you need to take a deep, de-panicking breath.

Lots of people join churches/synagogues/mosques/ etc. for the social more than the religious aspects. Maybe you're missing a particular kind of community in your life, or a way of connecting to some part of your spiritual (which is not the same as religious) life that going to this church every week is bringing up.

I've known a bunch of lapsed Catholics in particular who miss the ritual of their religious practice, though not the religious part itself. Perhaps this is something missing for you as well?
posted by rtha at 10:13 AM on November 30, 2009 [1 favorite]

Too bad! Sorry, apart from being really amused, I do feel for you. I was personally brought up, erm, nothing (by exceedingly lapsed Anglicans).

At university I met some charming but dotty non-denoms, and by the time I'd graduted,I'd read the Bible through, solved most of the major theological spats of the last 2 millenia and become the practising Catholic I am today.

However, my experience was certainly not typical, I don't hold it up as a pattern but just to show that life is full of rationalists who become Christians (I was a Physics major and hated - still do! - the abuse of both science and religion that is 6-day "creationism").

My advice is to trust the evidence of your eyes and be honest with yourself. Feelings and images come and go but reality is not irrational.

Probably your biggest "danger" (haha! Try reading "The Screwtape Letters") is from the disabled folk themselves. I imagine they are far less full of arguments than most of us and more honest about the real reason for following Christ despite ones "better judgement".
posted by KMH at 10:13 AM on November 30, 2009

I came to the conclusion at an early age that I am -nowhere- near intelligent enough to say whether God exists.

That's a very intelligent viewpoint, right there.

Last night... baby Jesus went by on the flatbed of a truck, with Mary and Joseph kneeling over him... and I started crying. What the hell.

Did you attend church when you were a very young child, before your parents drifted away from the church? If so, maybe you're just missing your childhood, and it's getting conflated with the symbols of churchgoing.

It happens: brains are weird things.
posted by rokusan at 10:15 AM on November 30, 2009

I think that Proverbs 3:25 has something to say about this. Or John 4:18. :-)

I wouldn't worry about it. You like the ritual and the social side of things. This doesn't mean you're turning into a believer. And even if you did start believing a bit, that's not the end of the world.

Also, it doesn't sound like you're being brainwashed.
posted by seanyboy at 10:15 AM on November 30, 2009

You are enjoying the sermons because they can be enjoyable when the speaker does a good job. You cried at some religious symbols because the world is a complex place and doubly so the human mind. You will laugh and cry and do other unexpected things in life with no parade necessary.

The tone of your question seems to indicate you are far from being "brainwashed" so just keep up with the self-reflection and think about things and don't be so freaked out by surprises. If you really want to talk to somebody, get some secular counseling or therapy.
posted by mikepop at 10:16 AM on November 30, 2009

Have you thought about doing some independent study on Christianity so that you're at least informed?

Actually, that's a heck of a way to "cure" yourself of Christianity. Study its history.

Seriously. Just do it.
posted by rokusan at 10:16 AM on November 30, 2009 [6 favorites]

Tis the season...

I'm pretty sure I can't and don't need to know the answers to the universe, and I let myself get prickly whenever I hear someone else proclaiming that they know the answers - whether thanks to the Christian bible, a fortune cookie, or the astral projection they were doing last week in their garage. I'm not sure what happened during the election of 2000, let alone what may or may not have happened in the Mediterranean Basin over 2000 years ago.

But strip away all the hooey? All the wives turning into pillars of salt and the pointy-tailed devils? All the fire and brimstone, and rules about eating shellfish or having naughty sex? Take away all of those things and you've essentially got a message of compassion and mercy and sacrifice and... well... love. And it's hard not to feel kind of warm and fuzzy when that's the focus.

But Christmas, that's powerful! It's all pretty lights and music and holiday spices and good will toward men! What's not to love about that?! Having a positive religious experience (as opposed to a spiritual experience, mind you) coupled with the power of the holiday season... that's bound to get anyone feeling spiritually pliable.
posted by greekphilosophy at 10:16 AM on November 30, 2009 [3 favorites]

I'm afraid you're not! You are just realising what any sane person who meets Christ (as against hearing second hand rumours) must realise:

Here is something inexplicably good and right and *I like it* even though it's obviously composed of all-too-human faces and clearly is a bit humiliating in its child-like frankness.

But passing beyond the evidence of one's eyes to the meaning of the event you witness, that's faith.

You can very easily invent alternative explanations and shut it out just like our majority culture does.

Be honest with yourself, no-one can brainwash you, not even with cookies.
posted by KMH at 10:18 AM on November 30, 2009

You're happy with your spiritual life, but what about your social life? Many people get involved with organized religion because it's a relatively easy source of community. If you think this might be the attraction for you, you could try joining a secular organization of some sort, or maybe even check out your local UU congregation if you want to explore the idea of faith in a low-pressure setting.

I wouldn't attach too much meaning to your crying at the parade. The image of the nativity scene has a lot of powerful secular associations - holiday celebrations, family togetherness, renewal, redemption, etc. - that could be enough to make even a non-religious person tear up, if they were in a sentimental mood.
posted by homuncula at 10:18 AM on November 30, 2009

It's possible - and totally okay - to find things meaningful or moving even if you don't believe that they are true.
posted by Metroid Baby at 10:18 AM on November 30, 2009 [4 favorites]

Aw, all that baby Jesus stuff makes me bust out crying all the time, and I don't believe in any of it. Don't worry about it. Church can be awesome entertainment.
posted by JanetLand at 10:19 AM on November 30, 2009

Seems like a lot of agreement here that Christian = brainwashed and that Christians are kind of dumb and take the Bible's creation myths literally. Not necessarily true. For many, being Christian or involved in any other faith is a fulfilling and comforting experience -- and this is true of many critically thinking, intelligent, politically and socially engaged people. Spiritual beliefs bring comfort to many, as does the fellowship of a spiritual community. My suggestion is to stay open to everything you are feeling -- the fear, the doubt, the attraction, all of it -- and explore any concepts that interest you in philosophy and metaphysics, whether they are Christian, atheist, Jewish, Buddhist, etc. You could even try prayer as an experiment and see how it makes you feel, or try meditation. But make it your own journey. As you know, you are sure to find proselytizers everywhere, so make sure you trust someone not to do that to you when you're ready to talk IRL about it to someone. That can quickly close a mind that's just starting to open to another exploration.

And there is absolutely nothing wrong with you. It's perfectly normal and human to have feelings like what you're experiencing. Spiritual experience is quite common; it's just our culture that is wary of it as it is of all emotion.
posted by xenophile at 10:21 AM on November 30, 2009 [4 favorites]

Church can provide a comfort of certainty and acceptance that you might not be finding elsewhere, but it doesn't necessarily come from the sermon. Being surrounded by happy people can be nice. You don't have to fight against the feel-good element of church, and if you "give in" to it, it doesn't mean you've been brainwashed.

As for the crying, I'd agree with anti social order - there might be a lot of emotions tied into the ceremony that you haven't realized, or didn't notice earlier.
posted by filthy light thief at 10:22 AM on November 30, 2009

As an atheist my first reaction was much like yours, shock and slight fear at the idea of losing oneself to something you are already sure isn't real/correct/whatever. But at the end of the day, if you are brainwashed into becoming christian, it's not like you're going to hurt anyone because of it. And anyway, you seem very sure of your core beliefs, so why is enjoying the trappings and tradition of religion a problem?

Hell, come christmas I can thoroughly enjoy your classier masses (see how au fait I am with this religion thing) and see the emotion inherent.

I guess, enjoy the bits you enjoy, but continue to remember why it is you believe what you believe. The more times I consider religion, variously and with an open mind, the more I am left sure of what I believe.
posted by opsin at 10:27 AM on November 30, 2009

My advice is to trust the evidence of your eyes and be honest with yourself. Feelings and images come and go but reality is not irrational.


I'm struck by your saying that you're "afraid" of being Christian, or being "brainwashed". Because I'm not entirely certain what there is to be afraid OF. If this particular cosmology resonates with you, then...what's the issue, again?

So I'm wondering if maybe you are approaching this like an "if A, then B" Cartesian logic thing: "uh-oh, if I become Christian again I'm going to have to start hating gay people and I'll have to get rid of my porn and ugh, I'll have to listen to Amy Grant records...." But -- you don't. There's a reason why there are a squillion Christian denominations -- different bits resonate differently with different people, and there are as many ways to be Christian as there are ways to be human.

Or -- maybe you're taking a similar path as me. I was raised Catholic, then lapsed, then started thinking that "you wasn't ALL bad." Some elements of the Christian faith still resonate with me, and some aspects of Catholicism in particular do. It's just that in my case, I ALSO see some elements of Judaism that resonate with me, and Sufiism, and Buddhism, and the Hindu faith, and neo-Paganism, and...after a few years of largely self-directed religious study, I finally came to believe all the different religions are just variations on a single theme. And because we're all individuals, it does make sense for different bits of different faiths to resonate with me. Some people find their inner spiritualism is best expressed in a single faith, while others may not fit neatly into one single box. You may be finding the same thing too. (I define myself these days as a weird independant form of Unitarian, even though I'm only just BARELY that, I think.)

Ultimately, though, trust your gut -- or, the "still small voice." If something about what you're doing makes that still small voice say "yes, I find Truth in this," then that's all that matters. If there's something you run into that makes that still small voice say, "mmm....I'm not so sure about this," then -- you don't have to go with it. Whatever it is that makes that still small voice comfortable is what you are -- whatever that may be.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 10:31 AM on November 30, 2009 [3 favorites]

The question in the green just before this was asking for books on Jung. I'm sure it's just synchronicity. Go there.
posted by gimonca at 10:33 AM on November 30, 2009

1. Becoming a Christian is not intellectual suicide. Becoming a Christian does not mean that you're being brainwashed.

2. Literal belief in the Genesis narrative is not a prerequisite to being a Christian.

3. No one is intelligent enough to logically prove that God exists; hence the importance of faith.

Someone else made a very good suggestions that I will echo: Do some independent study on Christianity. More knowledge can't hurt you.
posted by DWRoelands at 10:39 AM on November 30, 2009 [7 favorites]

And a few questions earlier, truth vs honesty.

It's possible to have a genuine, honest experience, and to be moved by something, even if that something isn't true.

Think of religion as great art.
posted by rokusan at 10:41 AM on November 30, 2009

If other people are psyched about God, that's great, good for them.

First off, it would be best if you were honest with yourself and admit that this statement isn't true. You've already built up the assumption that being a Christian implies brainwashing and a separation of a person from their "true self" or some other such nonsense. Part of the reason you're scared is because you honestly don't think it's great for others to be psyched about God - you're scared you'll become one of "them".

You're not very experienced when it comes to church, are you? What you're experiencing is the emotional experience that comes from these social events. And that's what church experiences can be - they're social events. There's a reason people get together on Sunday, sing hymns, and sway to the music. Church goers get something from it and that's what you're feeling. This, however, does not mean that you're a believer. What it means is that you're attune to the same event programming that the non-denominational church is practicing and you're part of their target market. At my congregation, there are several atheists who attend every Sunday. They enjoy the service, the music, and the community that we have there. And they're welcome to come as often as they like (and several have been attending for decades). It's perfectly okay to like the service without actually believing any of it.

The Church is bigger than the little corner you're currently experiencing. Just enjoy the cookies and relax. If you can't, take a look at previous events in your life where you were afraid of something and figure out how you turned that fear around. If it's through education, become more educated about Christianity and this specific church you're attending (there is no such thing as a non-denominational church). If you stop fear by avoiding it, bring your iPod and turn it on during the service. Just do what you know works. If that doesn't work, well, you'll be able to ask another question in a week from now.
posted by Stynxno at 10:46 AM on November 30, 2009

Yes, Religion is evil*, but liberal Catholicism (which I am guessing is what you are part of a part of given the description of the services) can be less evil than most.

Maybe take some courses in religious history, give some context for your beliefs that is intellectually stimulating, spiritually relevant, and interesting. And having a functional understanding of the Bible, why it exists as it does, what it has meant to various people through history and how it is affecting society today, is never a bad thing.

Whether this deepens your faith, or steels your opposition to religion, at least that new belief will be better rooted in facts and knowledge, not gut responses, dogma and cookies :)

*BTW - religion IS evil when viewed structurally from a systemic civilization wide perspective, but that does not mean that individual religious people, or even individual religious movements or churches are necessarily evil as a consequence.
posted by DetonatedManiac at 11:18 AM on November 30, 2009

Christianity is moving, even if you aren't a believer, because:
  • You can reflect on the thousands of people through history who have done acts of great self-sacrifice because they believed;
  • Thousands of people have been moved to acts of incredibly vivid emotion (love, hate, fear, greed) of all kinds because of strong religious beliefs;
  • The power, both spiritual and secular, of the Catholic and other churches has brought into being works of incredible scope, artistry, and feeling (sculptural, architectural, literary, visual, musical) that might otherwise not have existed;
  • Religion speaks to needs very deep within humans, whether you believe these needs include a longing for parental love, for trust in something outside ourselves, for a purpose to our pain-filled lives, or for a sense of fairness in the universe;
  • The stories in the Bible are often about people who are suffering a great deal, then are saved from suffering -- the older you get, the more the suffering resonates;
  • There's this story about a vulnerable pregnant helpless girl and a tiny helpless baby, born into a cold heartless scary place, who somehow came out more than OK;
  • Many people have memories from very early childhood that associate Christian symbols and celebrations with security, comfort, and innocence, whether consciously, or perhaps more powerfully, unconsciously;
  • Seeing many people doing anything in concert is amazing, whether that's building a structure, dancing in unison, contributing to a collective work of art, putting on a parade, or singing hymns that have been handed down through hundreds of years. To be part of something like that is very much more moving, especially if you do or see it over an extended period of time;
  • A lot of people long for a sense of community, which is difficult to achieve (see every third AskMe question) without some kind of social structure like a church. Just seeing a lot of people being happy together can be quite moving.

posted by amtho at 11:21 AM on November 30, 2009 [5 favorites]

A lot of people have already pointed out that religious services implicate a bunch of different things, from our sense of the transcendent, to our need for structured activity, to something as simple as enjoying time spent with the usual crowd. Throw in a powerful narrative structure, and hey, what's not to like?

But it sounds to me like you might be turned off not by Christianity as such but by the expression of Christianity with which you're currently associated. You say you're attending a non-denominational church. These tend not to be known for their intellectual, cultural, or historical rigor. Quite the opposite in fact. Consider branching out a bit. That can be hard, given that it seems your reason for attending this particular church has some significant social component, but the caricature which passes for the public face of Christianity these days isn't terribly representative of the historical mainstream. Stick your head in a Catholic or Anglican service. Read a little Chesterton. Unless you actively don't want to be a Christian--and leave room for personal change and growth, eh?--see if you can find what you seem to be looking for.
posted by valkyryn at 11:38 AM on November 30, 2009

I wouldn't worry so much about believing and religion. Seems like, by doing your acts of service and sharing fellowship, you slipped in the side door of what the Church is supposed to be. Please keep serving disabled people. Keep finding other ways to be selfless and serve others. Focus on the peace, goodwill, and love with your fellow human beings. See what fruits that bears. Forget about religion.

Love is Love. The reality is the touching moment you had. You can let your rational mind call it whatever seems reasonable. You can call it Grace, hormones, or a spontanous emotional reaction. God (who is Love) will find you when you're ready and I don't think He cares what your mental constructs say He is.

If you must do a study of Christianity, suggest starting with the apophatic and mystical traditions. It is nearest where your heart seems to be. All that dogma and theology (while I think it serves a necessary function for us believers) is far removed from the actual experience of God.

Or you could start with Mary Oliver:

"I don't know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is is you plan to do
With your one wild and precious life?"
(from The Summer Day, Why I Wake Early by Mary Oliver)

posted by cross_impact at 11:42 AM on November 30, 2009

I am the Jewiest of Jewish girls and I felt moved when I attended a midnight mass with my best friend purely for the fun of it. I went to an Episcopal all-girls high school and sang in the choir during the Christmas concert, mostly because I love singing and music. Those hymns and carols still make me feel all warm and fuzzy inside, perhaps partially because they remind me of that time in my life. Being emotionally affected by pomp and pageantry and music is normal - in fact, it's a big part of what makes religion (especially Christianity) so appealing and successful.

There was definitely a time when I was worried about being brainwashed by all of the Christian influences around me, about being "sucked in". Now, I realize how kinda silly that all was. It is okay for me to think hymns and Nativity scenes are beautiful, and to appreciate the central Christian message of compassion and goodwill, without believing in ol' buddy Jesus and his divinity.

I do not think I can mathematically or irrefutably prove the existence of a supreme deity. That's ridiculous. (Sorry, Descartes.) In fact, I have no idea Who or What is out there. How could I?
I also still, for whatever reason, still practice Judaism and find it adds immeasurable value to my life. I attend services, Shabbat dinners, and study a tiny bit of Talmud on occasion. To me, these things do not contradict one another.

And, as EmpressCallipygos said above, different parts of different faiths definitely resonate, and that is okay too. They're all driven by the same basic need for community and imposing some kind of meaning, or narrative, on life's uncertainties and obstacles. Your"still small voice" (which is one of my favorite turns of phrase and comes from the Old Testament!) is one to listen to. You don't sound brainwashed at all - you sound like a normal, freethinking, human being who still has feelings and is affected by beauty and ritual. I think taking the disabled people to church is a wonderful thing to do, and as long as you do too, keep doing it.
posted by bookgirl18 at 11:54 AM on November 30, 2009

My core beliefs (and disbeliefs) haven't changed, I don't think. But I'm getting scared. I don't want to be brainwashed. I certainly don't want to be one of the sort who, when asked about the love of their lives, go on for 45 minutes about Jesus.

These statements don't seem compatible. If your "core" beliefs haven't changed, then you're unlikely to go around proselytizing about the faith.

It sounds like you're very much enjoying a feeling of belonging to a group that accepts you, and there's nothing wrong with that. But be careful that you don't misrepresent yourself - it's OK to say that you're just looking for truth (even if you already think you've found it).

You might even find it interesting to have this very discussion with an open-minded priest - they DO exist - about what attracts you to the Church despite its conflict with your core beliefs. Also, as others have mentioned, learn about the history of the Church - especially the very early Church - to get a fuller idea of what it is you might be buying into. The modern Church is not much like the worship practiced by the earliest Christians.
posted by mikewas at 12:07 PM on November 30, 2009

I'm not sure where people are getting Catholic from your question since you specified non-denominational. Non-denominational churches are generally the sort that fund anti-choice groups and anti-equality laws.

Start thinking of your time in church as being a spy in the culture war. Analyze why the message is appealing to you and those around you. What is good about the service/community that you think the other side should start adopting and using more effectively? What symbols are repeated throughout the service and decor that reinforce those feelings? Also, in the non-denominational services I've been to (which have been a lot) the preacher hasn't been especially good at putting passages of the Bible into context. So, read the verses and chapters around the star verse. See if you think the preacher is unfairly focusing on one aspect and ignoring something equally important. See if you can find other parts of the Bible that contradict his interpretation of what's happening in the particular passage he's addressing.

All of this is based on my assumption about what kind of service you're attending. If it really is of some more liberal flavor, disregard my advice. But I really do think that it's incredibly important for people on both sides of the culture war to start seeing what is attractive and beguiling about the other side. Hopefully, we can find the areas that bring us together.
posted by stoneweaver at 12:19 PM on November 30, 2009

There are way worse things that could happen to you than becoming Christian. Why are you so afraid of it? I think that's where you need to focus your thoughts - what would be so bad about being a Christian? Is it that you have negative associations with Christians from your childhood? Is it that you don't feel like that Christian churches value logic and rigorous scientific analysis? What would be wrong if you decided to embrace Christianity? What would it remove, rather than add to, your life to be a Christian?

Rhetorical questions aside: I'm a Buddhist and I'm with Eddie Izzard on believing that Jesus - if he existed - had some groovy ideas in the "Gandhi type area." And Christmas just hits me right in the smooshy spot. I tear up over "Silent Night" totally unapologetically. If I attend a Christian church service there's a good chance that I might... get something in my eye...

Religion is emotionally charged and powerful. It's designed to fill a certain niche - much like... heroin. There's a reason it's the "opiate" of the masses. While it's valuable to analyze it and view its history in context - certainly religion has been used as a weapon, as well as a tool - there's also nothing wrong in adding religious belief and ceremony into your life.
posted by grapefruitmoon at 1:00 PM on November 30, 2009

I was raised with the Catholic snack break (stale crackers and juice) and calisthenics (sit, kneel, stand + repeat!) every sunday. I am at best an irreverant progressive Catholic who infrequently attends service. At worst, I'm an agnostic who occasionally mocks the Pope (I'd high five him if he was just a little bit more tollerant of people and didn't stick his head in the sand about taking precautions regarding spreading infectious diseases).

1. You know you don't have all the answers.
2. You know the people you know certainly don't have all the answers.
3. It sounds like you still believe someone or something might have all the answers, or at least a cheat sheet with some of the answers filled in.
4. You'd like to think we have a greater purpose besides Black Friday, Cyber Monday, paying income taxes, and fertilizer.
5. You resist the thought that the pinnacle of civilization (thusfar) might (sadly) be those four things.
6. The concept of religion has seemed simple in the past, and you have found the image of the sacrificial lamb (sheep) so ingrained in it to be at least ironic.
7. The culture you've surrounded yourself in thusfar has seemed to ridicule religion from an intellectual perspective.
8. You're afraid if you catch religion that you might catch stupid as well.
9. Counterintuitively, you are finding your religious interractions to not be stupid, to actually present some positive thoughts, and to actually promote some positive and actionable ideals and provide outlets to exercise positive social action.

Ultimate irony: You are looking for the blessings of someone else to tell you its ok to like the thought that god might exist.

Ok... Sometimes hipsters are cool people. Sometimes politicians are honest. Sometimes religous people are intelligent. Sometimes its ok to try green eggs and ham.
posted by Nanukthedog at 1:23 PM on November 30, 2009 [5 favorites]

A few additional tips that might help you adjust to church acceptance:

* They aren't going to tell you to stay away from friends/family who aren't members or even Christians. If they do, you've somehow taken a wrong turn and ended up at a cult meeting. That's different, and you should probably run.

* You don't even have to become an official member. In fact, I recommend against it unless you just really like the newsletter.

* The pastor isn't telling you what you're supposed to believe (regardless of what he, himself might think). He/she (probably he) is giving you his interpretation of the Bible. All you're doing is hearing him, and if you're screaming in your head, "WTF? That's ridiculous!" that's cool. You're not the only one.

* Some churches include little pieces of paper in the bulletin/program so that you can take notes. Use them some time. Study your notes later. Research what you were told. Also note how you felt while you were listening as opposed to how you feel now that you're by yourself.

* Remember that not every Christian is the same. There are many who have nothing against gays or homosexuality, who do not believe that every word in the Bible is to be taken literally or is unerring. Quite a few accept evolution as fact; they just won't say so in front of other Christians. Fundamentalist Christians will say that all of the above is unChristian. That's fine. That's just what the fundamentalist believes.

* When greeted by church members, repeat to yourself: they are being friendly. They have not singled me out to indoctrinate me. Their minds at the moment are 50% on church and 50% on the steak buffet they're going to after the service.

* The church is filled with human beings. Even the pastor is human. Yes, even when you don't like what he says.
posted by katillathehun at 1:42 PM on November 30, 2009 [3 favorites]

Sorry about the Catholic thing - I mis-read the question.
posted by mikewas at 1:48 PM on November 30, 2009

Heck, I identify as pagan and some of the Christmas carols and stories can make tears well up in my eyes. It has nothing to do with belief, but with the effectiveness of the telling.

Nonetheless, if you are drawn to the church, there's nothing wrong with it as long as you aren't acting against your own existing beliefs. And seriously, I'm guessing you like more of the community and the underlying values than the literal interpretations - do you think Jesus was a real person with a nice philosophy, a made-up too-good-to-be-true story, or the divine son of God? If you don't truly believe number three, than you're not being brainwashed against your will.

I'm sure there are plenty of Christians who subscribe to the basic philosophies but don't believe most of the Bible as literal fact.
posted by timepiece at 2:04 PM on November 30, 2009

Being compelled by a concept is far from brainwashing. And the thought of a unique, perfect source of everything, who is in some way a person, well that's pretty darn compelling. That he would take pains to rescue his creation from themselves, that's even more compelling. And that the only catch is to believe...

You do not have to cease being skeptical or intellectual. You don't have to let someone decide for you what is a metaphor and what is a historical account. You do not have to be fundamentalist or even evangelical. You don't have to choose one denomination over the other, you don't have to have answers, and you don't have to be giddy or use churchspeak. Oh and though we don't like to say this, you will still sin, probably every day until you die.
posted by rahnefan at 2:19 PM on November 30, 2009

Honestly, I don't think you need to be worried about being brainwashed. And I'm not sure why you're feeling so upset by a pretty common reaction to a pretty strong stimulus. In the span of your short question, you do a lot of dismissing of religion, and diminishing of others' beliefs -- denigrating elements of many folks' sacred text as 'rib-woman' and 'talking snake' and 'magic garden' in a snarky and borderline dismissive way.

I'm assuming you're an intelligent person. And like an intelligent, thoughtful, and self-aware person you should examine and learn about those things that affect you. I think what you're struggling with is some psychic dissonance: on one hand you are interested in religion, or turned on by some part of your recent experience in church (the storytelling, the community, the ritual, the music, the pagentry and - yes, possibly - the spiritual side) and on the other hand you want to feel better/smarter/cooler/more contemporary/more liberated than what you associate with religion.

On balance, this should tell you a lot about your stereotyping of church/churchgoers than it does about Jesus, God, or the church. You have basically lumped together 159 million American Christians as holding silly magical beliefs, evincing "brainwashed" behavior, evangelizing for 45 minutes at a time, etc., etc. And I, for one, have literally, literally, never met a single person who does all of theses things. Studying religion with an open mind is not a slippery slope. Engaging with a whole -- gigantic -- continent of knowledge encompassing bits of history, philosophy, theology, linguistics, psychology, theatre, government... you name it... does not make you brainwashed, it makes you smarter, and more tolerant. If you like what you read, what you learn, if you decide you do have religious feelings, you will be faced with many, many, many choices along the way. You can very easily believe in some pieces of a stated faith and not others; like the music but hate the words; agree with some of the commandments but not all; combine the strands of Judaism and Sufi mystic philosophy (like my friend R.), and recognize that your faith and beliefs can be as individual, weird, and idiosyncratic as is a single human being. Moreover, you can change them if they're not working.

You are an adult, and capable of fine and particular thinking. You are not 'in' or 'out' with religion, you are not going to accidentally tumble into churchiness if you have never been churchy before. Enjoy the services you have to attend for work; the worst scenario I can forsee is that you might disagree with a sermon, and the best is that you may learn something about yourself and your beliefs, and find a new outlook on life.

FWIW I am not particularly religious, but I have a really dim view of religious intolerance masquerading as 'freethinking' openmindness.
posted by mr. remy at 2:41 PM on November 30, 2009 [5 favorites]

There's nothing wrong with being a Christian. A lot of smart, skeptical, intellectual people are. If it moves you, explore it. There isn't a deadline on whether to decide if you are or aren't. Just be curious, read, ask questions. And you know what? It's okay to do that for the REST OF YOUR LIFE if need be.

Also, don't get hung up on your "existing beliefs." Beliefs change as new information becomes available. Just because the new information, in this case, isn't exactly quantifiable, doesn't mean it isn't real or worth considering. You may eventually reject it anyway, or you might not.

I think it's okay to have mysteries in your life, motivations or desires you don't understand or can't rationalize. I am an atheist myself, but I live among and love many believers, and I've learned a lot from them. It seems to me that a mature relationship with God is an ongoing, growing, evolving, questioning thing. What makes someone a believer of any faith, I think, is not the wholesale subscription to a particular doctrine, but rather the willingness to engage with it, struggle with it, doubt it. (I suppose some fundamentalist sects would disagree, but I doubt you would be happy there anyway.)

Also, for the record, I think it's also fine to be attracted to the ritual and community even if you never resolve the theology. Some people find it hypocritical to furnish your life with the trappings of faith without the core belief, but I don't. People do yoga, climb mountains, run, or listen to Bach because it makes them feel good in a way that nothing else does.

Church isn't--or shouldn't be, anyway--a club reserved for the already-confirmed (some would like it to be, though). I was raised Jewish, and another word for synagogue is "shul" or "school." The point is that we went to synagogue not to proclaim Judaism but rather to continue learning how to be Jewish. Although I eventually left the faith for other reasons, I have always thought that was a wonderful attitude to have.

So, good luck on your journey. No matter where you end up, you'll know yourself a lot better, and that alone, I think, is worth it.
posted by thinkingwoman at 3:09 PM on November 30, 2009 [1 favorite]

A lot of religions promote rigid thinking, and rather rotten behavior towards others. Most religions require a belief in God. But. Religion offers community, fellowship, and spirituality. So choose a religion very, very carefully; one whose beliefs and behaviors you can support. Most people end up in the religion their parents ended up in, or through some other random chance, but you could make a more conscious choice.
posted by theora55 at 3:56 PM on November 30, 2009

There's no shame in being both religious and an intelligent person.

1) religious groups often offer a very close-knit, loving community.
2) there is a large cultural part of religion (you mentioned that your family is catholic... wouldn't that affect your perception of the world, regardless of your personal beliefs?).
3) Your experience with the manger scene is a good example of what Emile Durkheim calls 'collective effervescence.'

do what you feel like, whatever makes you happy. do you enjoy your experiences at church? if yes, then go, by all means. if not, then don't.
posted by chicago2penn at 4:13 PM on November 30, 2009

There are a lot of really long responses to this, but quite frankly as someone who is not religious by any means, attending the few services I have with friends was simply uplifting.

It's rare to be in a room full of people who are genuinely happy all at once and have the idea that everything is going to be alright in this day and age. That said -- for me -- it feels incredibly creepy and a lot of the people seem "brainwashed", but it's the idea that people want to *be* and *do* good in a time when no one can be trusted and we're always watching our backs.

I cry when I hear an old favorite song, see a happy child, a font with some incredible contextual alternates, so the thought of crying at a symbol of hope is actually sane and just because it's Jesus! doesn't mean you're "succumbing".
posted by june made him a gemini at 4:16 PM on November 30, 2009

Religion is out of control may be slightly off topic, but the general concept of valuing reality over fantasy seems spot on.

Your new friends have been working on their project for 2,000 years and it has been rather unsuccessful. Hardly seems an endorsement for the approach.

Knowledge is a threat to faith. All religions are equal. None are true.

You get to choose... reason or revelation? The latter any idiot can invent, and so far, thousands have. L. Ron Hubbard, Jim Jones, Josef Smith, Muhammed, Jesus, Bob (of the Church of the Subgenius. Anything goes in this mix.

Is this your in-group? Are these people your heroes? For every real 'saint' you can point out, there are a million devils.... with little exaggeration.

If your life is about the progress of your species, there must be more certain ways to achieve that then engaging in the comfort of fantasy.
posted by FauxScot at 4:35 PM on November 30, 2009

I was raised not just atheist, but actively antithetical and hostile to religion. But recently, I've been attending services at a Congregationalist church, and I kind of like it. I do feel some of what you're talking about, though, like I'm falling for some massive con, because surely it can't be what it looks like it is.

But in my case, as far as I can tell, it is. The thing that's throwing me off is that these people are really, really sincere; in my own high-snark high-cynicism experience, sincerity is usually followed by an attempt to sell me something. But that doesn't seem to be the case here! They seem to be genuinely, literally sincere and nice people. It's possible that what you're reacting to is the sincerity itself, even, because that is frequently in short supply.

Just to address some of your other points: My church doesn't believe in either biblical literacy or exclusivity. They don't believe that everything in the Bible is even metaphorically true or useful, and they don't believe that the Bible is the only source of information about God. They don't even, necessarily, believe in the divinity of Jesus; they absolutely don't believe in Hell. What they believe is that God exists, one way or another, as a force that would like it if we were all a little nicer to each other, and that the story of Jesus gives some good pointers as to exactly how we might go about doing that.

They are not anti-gay. In fact, they are pro-gay. And not just as lip service, but as in two-thirds of the pastors are gay and they celebrated National Coming-Out Day from the pulpit, offering a special congregational prayer for people who are coming out to their friends and family, and for all the fears and hopes associated with that action. They are not anti-reason; they love a lively debate. About anything.

Anyway! If you like going, keep going. You can like being there without believing in God. It's OK to enjoy being amongst a group of sincere people who are trying to do the right thing, whether you agree with them or not. And it's also OK to be scared because you're having an experience that doesn't match your internal perceptions or expectations; pretty much everyone does.
posted by KathrynT at 4:49 PM on November 30, 2009

katillathehun: "A few additional tips that might help you adjust to church acceptance:

* They aren't going to tell you to stay away from friends/family who aren't members or even Christians. If they do, you've somehow taken a wrong turn and ended up at a cult meeting. That's different, and you should probably run.

My church did. It took me more than 5 years to get out and 2.5 years of therapy to deal with it.

So OP if this happens to you, yes, do run.

If you want to read more about mind control, check out this page on FactNet. Some cults do use emotional manipulation - instigating highs or lows via music and chants, for example, to gain control over their members. That doesn't mean this is what is happening to you, however.

Finally, I'd like to leave you with a favorite quote of mine: "In the end, only an individual can judge whether they personally experienced an abusive, cultic relationship. One person's nightmare may correspond to another's 'uplifting experience.'"
posted by IndigoRain at 9:49 PM on November 30, 2009

I want to thank everyone for the insight. In particular the people who made me re-evaluate some of my comments and language- I do think I have some misconceptions or narrow-mindedness. I'm still not sure what exactly I'm going to do, there is a lot of information out there, and a lot of advice here I want to soak in. Thank you all for your thoughtful responses, you helped squelch the worry that was keeping me up all night.
posted by Syllables at 10:36 PM on November 30, 2009

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