I listen to the familiar rhythm of the liturgy, so similar to the Roman Catholic words with which I grew up. I listen to the full throat of the organ and the voices of the choir weaving the tapestry of classical polyphony. And generally I'm lucky enough to get a really good and thought-provoking sermon, too, as the quality of preaching is quite high. But I don't sing, I don't say anything, and I don't take Communion, because I'm a church-going non-believer.
Around and about this week, people have been discussing faith, atheism, and science. Just as there is a tendency of non-believers (and the media) to color all Christians with Jerry Falwell paint, there is a tendency of believers to pigeonhole all atheists as faith bashers.
Yet I'm not alone in being an…. accommodator. Recently, the Templeton Prize was given to astrophysicist Martin Rees, who has been described as a "Churchgoer who doesn't believe in God." He commented in an interview,
What I've said is I'm happy to attend my college chapel and things like that, because I see this as part of my culture, just like many Jews light candles on Friday night even though they don't believe anything, and my culture is the Church of England, as it were.Similarly, my culture is clearly high church trinitarian sacramental Catholicity of one form or another. Hence the comfortable familiarity of the liturgy makes it a pleasant experience. I would have a much harder time with a more…. er, "contemporary Christian" kind of thing. There would be no cultural connection.
As the philosopher John Gray said in a recent interview,
"I'm not a believer, but I'm friendly to religion, partly because it goes with being human—it's an odd kind of humanism which is hostile to something which is so quintessentially human as religion."Exactly. It would be foolishness to deny the impact of faith on western thought or on the people around me. To me, the issue is not whether you have faith, or not. It's whether you can accommodate me, as I can accommodate you.
So, I remain a non-believer in the pew. I don't make a point of it, because after all I'm choosing to be there. I'm sure most of the folks in church don't know or notice. Those that do, may think I'm simply "earlier on the journey" than others. (I think some people think I'm Jewish, based on the occasional question. This is a frequent assumption because I'm dark and strong-featured.)
Instead, I tend to think that I've gone much further. I've gone past being religious, through my religion-bashing phase and to some extent am post-religious. Now I can find the common ground with my socially progressive instincts and faith groups who articulate it on the ground.
Besides the music is great.
Photo: font, St Paul's Cathedral San Diego (c) author