Conduct at for a ceremony at a church I left?
April 29, 2007 4:54 PM   Subscribe

How do I conduct myself at an important family function in a church I left on a sour note?

A few years ago, I had a falling-out with my family when I admitted to them that I was atheist. Since then, I have moved out and graduated college, and over time we have become close again, but mostly avoid talking about church and God for obvious reasons.

My brother is about to be confirmed and I am invited to the ceremony and party. The day will be filled with Jesus this, Moses that, Abraham hit me with a whiffle ball bat. I haven't stepped foot inside my old church since the falling-out. Being relatively new to this whole godless thing, I'm not sure how I should conduct myself before people (old church acquaintances, the pastor, and others) I have been told I have "lied to", "hurt" and "wronged". I do not want to talk about Jesus or God, as I do not want to patronize people I have every reason to respect. Because of the way I left the church, everyone would see right through that hypocrisy anyways. I worry that I'm going to appear to be bad luck at the ceremony, considering I left it only a short time after my own confirmation, which might imply certain things about myself or my family to the church.

How should I congratulate my brother? Should I say "congratulations on your achievements" and leave it at that? How can I answer the prying questions about my choices and life that I am sure I will get (my church is packed with nosy types with no tact), without taking the focus off the fact that the day is about my brother and not me? I don't want to lie, but I don't want to be snarky.
posted by anonymous to Religion & Philosophy (25 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I wouldn't attend. You don't believe in that which is being confirmed. Therefore I think it would be best to send your well wishes and remain at a distance during this time.
posted by crewshell at 5:15 PM on April 29, 2007 [1 favorite]

1) Accept the fact that some people will judge you adversely because of your decision to be an atheist.

2) Stop caring about 1. No really. This may involve ignoring insults, slights, or direct confrontations. Just ignore them.

3) It's perfectly suitable to congratulate someone on doing something you don't see as useful for you. Your feelings for your brother should reflect the amout of effort necessary for the acomplishment, not whether you'd have done it yourself.

4) Understand that your silence is not consent, and that you're still an atheist even if you sit quietly during someone else's prayers. If the service involves kneeling you can sit quitely and stare off into space without being offensive.

5) Let them do the worrying about bad luck and appearences and all that other crap. You're family, you're being supportive. As long as you are polite maintain a little tact you'll be fine.
posted by tiamat at 5:17 PM on April 29, 2007 [1 favorite]

The need to deal with this kind of situation is why assertiveness techniques were invented. Check it out, there is stuff there that will help you.
posted by teleskiving at 5:21 PM on April 29, 2007

I go to catholic mass every christmas and easter as a gift for my mother, who is deeply religious. She wants nothing more than to attend mass with me (& of course the rest of the family).

I dress my best, I stand, I sit. I do not pray, sing, or take communion (as I feel that it would be inappropriate for a non-believer) and I do not mock the horrible sermons.

I don't go for god, and I don't *not* go for me. I go because it is meaningful to my mom, who is someone I love dearly, religion and all. I recently attended my nephew's baptism, followed this plan, hugged my sister and told her how I love her and her boy. It was enough. In my opinion, you don't have to do more than that, and you shouldn't do less than that.
posted by fake at 5:25 PM on April 29, 2007 [2 favorites]

Go, nod, and just say, "Grats, bro," and don't talk about religion. If someone tries to bring religion up in an intrusive manner, just shrug, "I'd prefer not to talk about it." At that point, it's their problem- not yours.

I don't have much experience in other churches, but being silent at a Catholic service will not raise an eyebrow. If anything, I'm more surprised and curious of my surroundings when a congregation is fully active and everyone is singing along. Float along in the background and avoid bringing attention to yourself.
posted by jmd82 at 5:46 PM on April 29, 2007

Lifelong atheist here -- and I have never attended any church/temple/etc event. I have no desire to ever set foot in any house of worship for any reason. If something meaningful occurs to a friend or family member in such house, then you should congratulate or acknowledge that person in a manner you deem appropriate OUTSIDE of the church.
posted by davidmsc at 6:00 PM on April 29, 2007 [1 favorite]

go, be polite, and congratulate your brother. it might not mean anything to you, but it means something to HIM, and that's what you're supporting. you'd congratulate him for getting a phd in basketweaving if it was important to him, right? you don't have to share a goal to be genuinely happy and proud of someone for achieving theirs.

if someone has the poor taste to challenge you about your spiritual path, the above poster is correct. thank them for their interest and change the subject.

i too am an athiest but i participate in family religious observances, because it makes my parents happy, and because i like to retain that connection to the community in which i was raised. our beliefs may have diverged, but we haven't stopped caring for each other.
posted by thinkingwoman at 6:05 PM on April 29, 2007

Definitely attend. I am atheist, I stopped attending church several years ago, but get on well with people I know at my family's catholic church, so not quite the same experience as you. Treat it like you would if invited to a friends bar mitzvah - it's not your religion, but while you're there you agree you agree to let them have their particular expression of 'growing up day', and clearly only a horrifically antisocial person would treat this as an opportunity to discuss your religious views. Go with the 'I don't want to talk about it today, I'm just so proud of Johnny getting all grown up!'. This can also be the focus of what you say to him, rather than 'congratulations for becoming a full member of your church', as the event really is an acknowledgement that the confirmee is old enough to make a personal decision about their religion.

As far as the bad luck thing goes - I'm sure your parents/whoever is organising it considered that when inviting you, if it's something that other people would think of. They decided it's not an issue, so you don't have to worry about it either.
posted by jacalata at 6:06 PM on April 29, 2007 [1 favorite]

Ideas for phrases that might help you deal with snarky people asking why you are attending:

"I'm glad I could share this important day with my brother."

"For some reason, I felt I should be here to support him."

"I'm here because it makes him happy, it makes my parents happy, and it makes me happy. I hope nothing will take away from his feeling of accomplishment."

"My family is very important to me."

-- Follow with one of these subject changes: --

"What [great / beautiful / impressive / intense / rainy] weather we're having today."

"It's good that you could be here. How are you?"

"But this isn't about me, it's about my brother. Thanks so much for being here to support him -- we all appreciate it. I'm terribly sorry, but I have to go see to something for my family [e.g., seeing to your own state of mind so you don't say something mean and embarrass them]. Please excuse me."
posted by amtho at 6:11 PM on April 29, 2007

be respectful, ie none of this "Abraham hit me with a whiffle ball bat" stuff...and avoid the nosy people
posted by Salvatorparadise at 6:15 PM on April 29, 2007

Would you go to his wedding if it was held in a church? Would you go to his funeral if it was held in a church? How is this any different?

This isn't about you, it's about him. Go, celebrate, congratulate him, have a lovely day. Don't bring up religion, but if you're asked, answer honestly. As a fellow athiest, I'm always surprised about issues like this--an athiest is far more likely to make religion an issue than a religious person is.
posted by NotMyselfRightNow at 6:16 PM on April 29, 2007

You sound polite; you would probably conduct yourself appropriately, even without our advice.

1) Do whatever feels right as far as congratulating your brother (I don't really feel like I know enough about your relationship with him to say for certain what you should say.) If it were my brother, "Congrats!" and a hug would probably do. Remember this is not just about religion; this is a milestone in your brother's life.

2) Just keep cool and collected in dealing with nosy churchgoers. Don't lie, but try to avoid the subject of your atheism (if they pry, talk about whatever else is going on in your life.) If you don't bring up religion, things should be fine.

It would be rude for someone to out-of-the-blue directly ask if you are still religious. Pretend you didn't hear them. Or, say "Oh gosh-excuse me. Hey Steve!" and turn away. Or: "oh, let's not talk about that now. Don't you love this weather/these hors d'oeuvres/Martha's dress/Frank's speech/the band?"

In another setting, it could be appropriate for you to candidly explain that you are no longer religious, but at such a sensitive confirmation it is probably best not to mention it.

Have fun!
posted by Count Ziggurat at 6:34 PM on April 29, 2007

I think the solution to a lot of questions like this is to put your effort toward making other people comfortable, instead of worrying about how you're feeling. You can always be gracious and treat others the way you'd want to be treated, engage them in conversation, be open and warm and try to talk to them - even if you don't believe what they believe, and even if there's been nastiness in the past.

If something important were happening for me at church, I'd want my family to share it, even if they didn't believe it, because that would feel like support to me. (Obviously, you're the only one who knows your brother - everybody's different).

But if it were me, I'd just show up, smile, and if anyone says anything rude or starts asking impertinent questions, change the subject or walk away.
posted by eleyna at 6:49 PM on April 29, 2007

Jesus this, Moses that, Abraham hit me with a whiffle ball bat.

And you're concerned about running into snarky people?

As a fellow athiest, I'm always surprised about issues like this

As a prior atheist, I am too.

Look at it this way: you're not responsible so relax. You're not the head of your family and are in no position to lead 'em all away from what you believe is their group delusion. So let it go. Be a gentleman and realize none of 'em are looking to you for leadership in this fundamentally important area of life.

Meanwhile I get it. You will be fielding questions about your own spiritual state which will be awkward. I agree with the change-the-subject suggestions, good idea in what is largely a social setting. But if you really get cornered try this: tell 'em you're thinking things through. They'll be a lot happier thinking of you as an open-minded atheist than a close-minded atheist. Might be enough to get 'em to back off for the duration.
posted by scheptech at 6:52 PM on April 29, 2007

I have been the pastor of five United Methodist churches since 1997.

First pastorate: Urban church filled with military people and a lot of engineers at NASA and a local shipyard.

Second pastorate: Served three rural, blue collar churches at once.

Third pastorate: Small town/suburban appointment near major university, filled with young professionals, doctors, etc.

If you showed up for the first time in a long time in any of those five congregations, regardless of why you left, I swear here is exactly what you would hear:

"Hey! Anonymous! It is great to see you again! We missed you! We sure are proud of your brother! So, what have you been up to?"

The only exception would be in my country churches, where you would be offered some more chicken.

Honestly, you want people to give you the benefit of the doubt. Why not do the same for them? Besides, most of the stuff we worry about never happens anyway.
posted by 4ster at 7:18 PM on April 29, 2007 [1 favorite]

It would be rude for someone to out-of-the-blue directly ask if you are still religious.

And yet, that didn't stop my relatives from cornering me at the funeral after my uncle committed suicide. Seemingly unbelievable, but some people feel that it would be irresponsible and rude NOT to try to convince me away from damnation, regardless of the venue.

The key phrase I've learned is this: "I understand where you're coming from and I appreciate your concern." You do understand. You think it's ridiculous, but you know that if this particular strain of Christianity were true, then they would be constrained to try to convert you, rude or not. What you want to do is deflect the conversation, so acknowledge what they're saying and why they're saying it. Then start talking about how you appreciate your brother and you're glad to be there to support him because you know that his confirmation is very important to him.
posted by heatherann at 7:32 PM on April 29, 2007

ASSuming you were Catholic, I was raised Catholic and am an atheist. Most of my family is Catholic. I only attend church services for things like funerals, weddings, first communion, etc. I am fully familiar with the mass, but I don't participate; I am just respectful of those around me. I stand when everyone else stands out of respect, but I don't kneel or go through any other motions. I think it would be disrespectful of me to fake it & kneeling for someone I don't believe in is just not something I am willing to do in order to blend in. I definitely don't do communion as it's supposed to be sacred for the Jesus folk and not time for stale crackers & wine (I know atheists who will go up for that reason).

As far as how to handle religious questions, I never had any Catholic bring it up. IMO, they aren't big on evangelizing & leave that to the priests.

I express my happiness (or sadness as the situation dictates) the same way I do with my non religious friends...

I am so happy for you
I am proud of you
I am sorry for your loss
My thoughts are with you
posted by Empyrean_72 at 7:52 PM on April 29, 2007

I go to church on Christmas because my dad wants us to go with him, even though I am not a believer. I go to weddings in churches if I'm invited. Being invited means they want you there, it will make them happy to have you there. Yeah, it's awkward, but you get through it and then it's done.
posted by mai at 8:10 PM on April 29, 2007

If you really believe that you have hurt, lied to or wronged anyone, I for sure would recommend against attending. If this is just a huge guilt trip that was laid on you by your parents, I'm going to guess that you're building this up in your head to be more than it is.

If someone wants to talk to you about how or where you've been, just tell then that it's not very interesting, but you're dying to hear what they've been up to. People like to talk about themselves, and you can generally get them off on their favorite topic with a minimum of prodding.
posted by popechunk at 8:29 PM on April 29, 2007

I would also suggest - don't "defend" yourself. There is no need to explain or defend any of your beliefs, no matter how badly someone else wants an explanation. If it were me, I would smile and dismiss it or change the subject and do the "it's great to see you, you're looking good, how are you?"
posted by gt2 at 9:05 PM on April 29, 2007

The OP was Lutheran, according to the tags.
posted by Count Ziggurat at 9:13 PM on April 29, 2007

Honestly I think your choice rides on the culture/geographical location of the church. Are you from one of the heavily religious cultures of the Bible Belt? If so, it might very well be best not to go back to the service. Are you from California? Minnesota? Massachusetts? Places like that, the culture isn't so permeated with religion that you'd be treated any differently.

To add a personal anecdote, last year (and in years prior) I returned to my parents' house to spend Christmas with them, and my mother wanted to go to a Christmas service. Now, I am very deeply confused about religion in general, but I absolutely do not believe in any organized religion. Suffice to say this made me nervous; I always worry that I'll encounter the reactions you described in your question. However, this was in Minnesota, and I should have counted on the fact that tolerance > dogma, usually, in that culture. I was treated marvelously by all the people who knew that I was not, and did not want to be, a part of their church.

Doesn't mean I didn't get out of there as fast as possible...but it wasn't as bad as it could have been.
posted by voltairemodern at 10:34 PM on April 29, 2007

Say "Judge not, lest you be judged", maybe even have it printed up on little business cards and hand them to anyone who gives you any hassle. If they won't leave you alone tell them you're going to turn the other cheek now and walk away.
posted by biffa at 2:22 AM on April 30, 2007

What if your brother was an actor in a play that you felt was badly written? Yet he was really excited about opening night, and wanted you to attend. If you liked your brother, you'd attend, and when he and others asked what you thought of the play, you'd tell a white lie about how you enjoyed it. You're not sacrificing your identity by telling this white lie. You can make up your mind never to see anything by this particular playwright ever again. But for now, it's your brother's day, and he deserves to be recognized for his accomplishments.

If the other attendees try to convince you of the merit of this playwright, and imply that it's in your best interest to attend more plays, you would simply decline. If they were insistent, you might say that you have something else to do that evening.

In short, this event doesn't need to carry all this baggage for you. You know you're not going to hell because you don't believe X or Y... so you can be polite to people who do think that. I mean, what does it cost you? Nothing. Your head isn't going to explode, is it? Besides, people aren't as focused on you as you might like to think.
posted by desjardins at 6:35 AM on April 30, 2007

go, be polite, and congratulate your brother.

Exactly. (Assuming, that is, you're capable of being polite, which all that "Abraham hit me with a whiffle ball bat" stuff leads me to wonder about.) I was raised Lutheran, decided shortly after being confirmed that the whole God thing was ridiculous, went through a very brief "can God make a stone so big he can't roll it? huh, can he??" phase, then settled down and accepted my atheism and other people's religion without further ado. I like churches (and mosques, and synagogues), I have no problem attending services when the occasion arises (especially if there's music), I don't get into arguments about it because nobody's going to change their mind. Frankly, I've never understood the type of militant atheist so visible here at MeFi, who freak out every time the subject comes up. Yeah, yeah, there's no god, just like there's no elephant in the corner there. If someone says there is, smile politely and change the subject. Get over it.
posted by languagehat at 5:17 PM on April 30, 2007

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