Would You Attend a Religious Gathering Just to Make Friends? June 25, 2009

Would You Attend a Religious Gathering Just to Make Friends?

A reader emailed me about an issue she was having at work. She’s a summer intern who wants to be social with her colleagues. One of them (let’s call him Bob) invited her and the other interns to a gathering.

Bob told her there would be a short prayer session, followed by hanging out and playing games.

The reader hasn’t told Bob she’s an atheist, and she feels comfortable skipping the prayer session altogether.

After checking into the gathering place, though, she is facing a small dilemma:

I’ve found out since that the gathering group — the Frassati Society — is specifically a fellowship for young adult Catholics. My coworker has mentioned it before, being completely open about it, so it wasn’t some stealth recruiting/conversion move.

My problem is that I’m an atheist knowingly going to a youth-group type of event. How ethical was it of me to accept? I don’t intend to cause trouble; I’m just curious and bored.

Personally, I think I would go too, if I were in her shoes. There’s no other option she has found, she’s skipping the prayer part of the service, and it’s a good way to network and meet other people.

Would anyone object to going to a religious gathering (even if you didn’t take part in any sort of prayer/ritual) in order to make new friends?

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Mikey

    I’ve seriously considered going to our local Unitarian Universalist Church, but I’m not sure that counts as a religious gathering.

  • Schmeer

    I would feel uncomfortable going to a religious gathering for social networking. However, since I was recently married in a Catholic church I can’t say I wouldn’t go. I’ve always had strong negative feelings about being involved in religious events, even before I knew that I was an atheist.

  • Jonathan

    My wife and I attend our local United Methodist Church regularly. I consider myself to be an atheist, and she is still trying to figure it all out. She’s very independent about that sort of thing, so I am not pressuring her at all.
    I haven’t told anyone there that I am an atheist, as I am willingly attending their religious institution. Oddly enough, I agree with pretty much everything the congregation does and says (except the whole God thing, haha!) as they contribute a good deal to the community and to the large homeless population in our area.
    That being said, there is nothing wrong with attending a religious gathering, but do understand that there may be a good deal of “God-Talk.”

  • This has come up for me, too. At one point I was considering seeking out a church, mainly for the community aspects. In the end, my wife and I decided it wouldn’t feel… I don’t know, true to ourselves to be there.

    I think this points to a problem many atheists deal with: in modern American culture, religious groups seem to have a corner on quality community-building. I’d love to get some of that high-quality community action, in a more secular setting, but the search goes on.

  • Devysciple

    I can only speak for myself when I say that going to any variety of religious meeting with the sole purpose of socializing with people is out of the question. For me. Personally. Solely.
    I will never look down upon any atheist/agnostic/whatever that does so. It simply is absolutely not my cup of tea.
    I could go on almost endlessly about the hows and whys, but eventually it just boils down to personal choice influenced by personal experience.

  • Meaghan

    I would not go. After three years living in Georgia, I don’t think I could handle it. My main problem would be the fact that everyone I would then be friends with would be religious, and that would be tough for me to handle.

  • Andrew Morgan

    I would definitely go, though it would probably depend on exactly what kind of religious gathering I’d be participating in. I probably wouldn’t go to an explicitly religious event that had no purpose that wasn’t religious, not only because I would be uncomfortable but because it would be dishonest on my part.

    But in this case it just sounds like a get-together that happens to have a small religious component. I also wouldn’t mind having dinner at a coworker’s house, for instance, even if I knew that she would be saying grace and that other religious folks might be in attendance.

  • Daniel

    It can’t hurt to go and check it out. If it’s too preachy then don’t go back, no biggie. There is a chance though that if she makes friends then she’ll have a new dilemma about telling them that she’s an atheist.

  • I don’t see the harm in going. You might make some new friends. The worst that happens is that they preach to you and you have a bad time and you don’t go back.

    (I guess if there was going to be a priest there then even worse things could happen, but that doesn’t sound like it’s the case.)

  • SteveWH

    I am reminded of an essay by the philosopher Simon Blackburn, entitled Religion and Respect (downloadable here).

    Personally, I would go. Most people disagree on at least some important issues. This doesn’t (always) mean that we can’t develop strong friendships with them, much less that we shouldn’t try, or at the very least, be open to it.

    I would probably mention the fact that I am an atheist to Bob first, though, as a polite way of testing the waters, and getting a sense of what I kind of situation I would be entering. It would also help to avoid attending the gathering under false pretenses – at an explicitly religious gathering, it would be reasonable to expect that everyone in attendance to belong to the fold.

    Let’s leave the exclusivity to the fundamentalists.

  • Peregrine

    I would consider the possibility that “Bob” is unaware that this society is primarily for Catholics, and simply decided to invite some co-workers along with the intention of including them in his social circle.

    I can’t speak for all Catholic groups or “gatherings”, but the few I’ve been to are pretty much exactly like that. There might be a brief prayer to start, maybe to finish, and some hanging out and playing games. In my experience, Catholics aren’t all that big on active recruiting.

  • Peregrine

    Oh, and as for the question of it being ethical to accept the invitation, if that detail was omitted from the get-go, she probably shouldn’t dwell on it too much.

  • Gordon

    I was at a Christian Youth Work Conference when I realised I was an atheist, so I’m glad I went!

  • allison

    I’m kind of with peregrine here.

    That said, I probably wouldn’t go to such a thing. My tendency would be to try inviting colleagues somewhere myself and to work toward a semi-regular gathering. When inviting people, I’d probably ask if there are others they’d like to suggest for the gathering. I’d try to be sure to invite the other interns as well so that there’s a bit of a cohort. If it’s a desire to go beyond colleagues she’d have to do more, but it sounds like the reader’s just trying to get to know the people she works with.

  • Nick Wallin

    I would probably email the “president” of this society and ask if it was okay (that an atheist went). You said this in your post:

    the gathering group — the Frassati Society — is specifically a fellowship for young adult Catholics

    If it is specifically for young adult Catholics, the higher-ups may not want atheists going. If they email back saying “oh, that’s fine” (either because they feel you’re “searching” and may be converted eventually or because they don’t care) then you could go, but if they don’t want you to, I don’t think it’d be “ethical” to, really.

    I mean, if you wanna go, just go.

  • Emily

    I would definitely go. There’s always food at religious functions….



  • Julia

    I don’t think there is anything wrong with going. But, if this were happening to me, I might mention to Bob that I’m not a Catholic and so I’m not really comfortable with the prayer session. And ask if that is a problem before attending. Whether I’d be explicit about being an atheist at this point would depend on the circumstances, just leaving it at ‘not a Catholic’ might be ok at this point.

  • John Larberg

    I think it would be a good way to show those people that atheists don’t have fangs. I’d personally be open about my beliefs, but only if asked or if I felt like I was being deceptive by not telling them.

  • gmcfly

    I would be concerned that, by joining their Bible study, I would be leading them on when I have no intention of converting. And I would have a hard time making friends with them, knowing that they are probably more interested in whether I join them than what I am like as a person.

  • schism

    I’d never attend such a thing. I hate being preached at (in any sense of the word, not just religiously), and, in my experience, that’s all that ever occurs in such scenarios.

  • Peregrine

    I wouldn’t imagine there’d be any fear of leading them on, and I don’t think that this particular event is a “Bible study”, unless I’m reading it wrong.

    Again, I can’t speak for Catholics, since I haven’t been one for going on 15 years, and even the I can only speak from experience. But in my experience, they’re pretty easy-going in general. They’re not really into the “hard sell” (well… not recently, anyway). And I wouldn’t anticipate any pretense for simply joining them for an afternoon of hanging out and games.

    It’s probably a lot of worry over something that’s no big deal. If they’re cool with having non-Catholics join them, she should try not to dwell on it too much.

  • TXatheist

    When I first moved to Texas a coworker invited me to play volleyball. It was at a church but outdoors on the sand court. After a couple weeks they started inviting me to church and I realized it was a church group and was honest I wasn’t into church. I stopped going.

  • TheLoneIguana

    Might be interesting as an anthropological study at the very least.

    Mikey: I’ve gone to some UU services. The people I’ve met tend to be quite nice. It’s sort of “whatever you believe, hey, that’s cool.”

  • Sarah TX.

    Since I grew up going to these sorts of gatherings, I would personally avoid them – just because I know exactly what the topics of conversation are going to be.

    1) Accepting Jesus into your heart,
    2) How awesome God is,
    3) Which girls are sluts and which are nice, and
    4) Field of Dreams (OK, this last one might just have been my social circle).

  • Randy

    I think some people are reading a bit to much into this. Its like going to a bar to socialize when you don’t drink. You go to socialize with your co-workers, not get blasted. She may even come away with a few similar stories (I couldn’t believe “Bob” ran around with a bible on his head all night!). If its preachy, don’t go back.

  • Sarah TX.

    Missed the part about it being a Catholic youth organization. In that case, you can leave off the first one (Catholics don’t seem to be as big into the Personal Revelation as Protestants are) and replace item #4 with “Halo”. My friend used to be a member of a Catholic young singles group and they played a lot of FPS games.

    Also, these groups were generally heavily targetted towards introducing Nice Young Men to Nice Young Women for the purposes of getting married. He said it was sort of a weird scene.

  • littlejohn

    No way, man. I might attend to make enemies. I hate religion, and I can’t stand people too stupid to believe in it.
    There is no room for compromise. They’re SHOOTING us, dude. Ask Dr. Tiller’s family. OK, bad example: He was a church-goer. But they shot him for religious reasons, despite the fact the Bible says squat about abortion.
    OK, the tranquilizer’s kicking in. No, i would not attend a religious function to make friends.

  • David D.G.

    Would anyone object to going to a religious gathering (even if you didn’t take part in any sort of prayer/ritual) in order to make new friends?

    I wouldn’t be as quick to do it as I once would have been, but I wouldn’t rule it out entirely.

    However, you should bear in mind the kind of friends you’re likely to get in such a place. They may be wonderful people, in their way — I still consider a lot of folks friends that I met solely through church, back when I went with someone — but they’ll almost certainly be devoutly religious, and disinclined to change that. They also might very well be inclined to rebuff and/or aggressively proselytize anyone who identifies as an atheist (though I wouldn’t consider such people “friends”).

    ~David D.G.

  • Peregrine

    I do have some friends from other denominations, and I certainly wouldn’t go to church, unless someone was getting married or something like that. But if they were having a Barbecue or something like that, and assured us that there was no pretense, then I might consider it.

    When I was in university, the “Alpha” club, a religious club on campus, had pizza one night, and didn’t have enough people show up for some reason. So one of our friends who was a member ran out and told us to come in and have some pizza. So we did. And we had a pleasant conversation, without hardly any talk about god or Jesus at all. I think a couple of them talked about some something amongst themselves briefly, but that was pretty much it.

    They didn’t ask us to pray, or invite us to church, or anything like that. Just pizza and conversation.

  • Jerry Priori

    When I was in my late teens, I used to do musicals during the summer with a local Catholic church group. By that time in my life, I had already considered myself an ex-Catholic, but it was never an issue with the group. They’d have prayers sometimes before rehearsals, but nobody was forced to participate. I’d just go outside and get some fresh air with whoever else wasn’t praying and we’d all join the rest of the group after.

    We were a tight group that all became close friends. Religion was never an issue and was rarely (if ever) the topic of conversation.

    In this situation, I’d make it clear to the friend who invited me that I wasn’t Catholic, but it isn’t an issue for me if it’s not an issue for him.

  • Ron in Houston

    Catholics as a general rule don’t tend to try to “convert” other folks. They also tend to be drinkers and can be loads of fun.

    Besides, it’s not like you’re going to church or being asked to sign some confession of faith.

    I wouldn’t worry about it too much and just go. Sometimes you guys just think too much.

  • mark

    I say that if you want to go then you should definitely go and have a good time. You already said that you have no intention of causing trouble and that is the only important thing.

    You might even find a few others there who don’t believe all the much in God either. At least not in the God that the catholic bureaucracy describes.

    One of my favorite responses to someone who says he/she doesn’t believe in god is that they should tell me what they think god is and then I tell them that I don’t believe in that kind of god either.

    Sometime later in your life you might come to the realization that there aren’t very many true hard core atheists in the world. Most non-religious people are really agnostics. You may also realize some day that all the major religions of the world only have a slight clue as to what they are talking about. None of them own God even though they like to pretend that they do.

  • David D.G.

    Ron in Houston wrote:

    Catholics as a general rule don’t tend to try to “convert” other folks.

    Maybe not as a rule, but it does happen. Just recently, I went to a neurologist who, in the course of what was otherwise an excellent first doctor-patient session, tried to overcome my atheism (declared in the “Religious Orientation” box on his New Patient form) by citing Pascal’s “Law”! He referred to himself in the discussion as a Roman Catholic. Fortunately, he did not pursue the matter when I told him I was already familiar with Pascal’s Wager.

    As I said, this was otherwise an excellent first doctor-patient session, and I intend to continue seeing him as long as he doesn’t pursue the topic. But I still felt that it was a distinct departure from otherwise impeccable professionalism in his office. I can only imagine what he’d be like in a church setting!

    ~David D.G.

  • Ron in Houston

    David D.G.

    I have not doubt there are some “hard core” Catholics. Their emphasis on parochial education means that many of them have had over 12 years of indoctrination.

    However, I will say this: Catholics are sort of like a fraternity. Questioning you on the depth of your atheism is far different than trying to make you a Catholic. So long as you’re a “Greek” (i.e. a “believer”) then that’s one point of view. However, admission to their fraternity is another thing.

    I don’t know if any of this made sense, but it did to me….

  • ursulamajor

    My 14 yr old son goes to one of those EXXTREEEEME churches every Wednesday night to hang out with his friends. He’s politely quiet or goes outside during the prayer. He realizes that while he’s on their turf not to start any atheist dialogues. But if he meets these same people outside church grounds, he’s not shy about his feelings. It’s a safe environment for him to hang with his pals. Plus those church girls can be…friendly.

  • Grimalkin

    I do from time to time. If I am invited, I warn my hosts ahead of time that a) I’m an Atheist, b) they probably won’t convert me, and c) I will be sitting out of any prayer/religiousiness.

    Then I just go and have fun. No big deal. It’s no more unethical than taking my non-pottery-enthusiast butt to a pottery club.

  • Kc

    I wouldn’t go, but that’s just me. Some kids in my class were being friendly towards me and had invited me to their religious function and I declined, then later when we all had lunch together they started the preachfest. I told them I wasn’t interested, and they don’t say much to me anymore.

    Their loss! 😉

  • No, I would not go anywhere near a religious gathering. I do not have a high opinion of religion, and I would not be interested in starting friendships based on deception.

  • Rachel

    I most definitely would not go. I grew up in a church that frequently used these kind of tactics to bring in “lost” people so that once the visitors were on-site and less likely to leave they could proselytize more effectively.

    I’d like to give her co-workers the benefit of the doubt and believe that they are just being friendly. However, in my experience, believers are continually pressured to evangelize so even innocent events like this often become used to increase membership. Perhaps this could be a useful moment for dialogue, but more often than not it ends up with the visitor feeling pressured and uncomfortable.

  • Di

    Recently my university in the UK became subject to the UCCF “free” campaign, which consisted of christian-union groups going room to room in student accommodation with gospels and adverts for student gatherings. Aside from this, they also put up posters all over our housing blocks advertising their related events.

    What I found particularly alarming about this conversion effort was that they were aimed at INTERNATIONAL students – students who are in an unfamiliar country, probably without many friends or family to help them settle into their new home. They invited international students to come to cake evenings and other apparently secular events, with the subtext that there would be Christian discussion and sermons after/during. It struck me, however, that students might be inclined to go to these events because of the social element, perhaps not thinking much of the religious perspective. It smacked a little too much of the resident CU deliberately seeking out and isolating vulnerable individuals. (UCCF is a missionary focused organization: its mantra is ‘making disciples of Christ in the student world,’ and you can check out their website if you don’t believe me.)

    As others have noted above, such events in which a secular activity is followed/preceded by religious doctrine should be approached with some caution, as their intent is often to convert at a time when the guests aren’t likely to be defensive.

    That said, it really does come down to context, and whether or not the invitee is likely to feel comfortable at such a gathering. As an atheist with many Christian friends, I have been to gatherings in which I was the only non-Christian present. Yet this was never problematic because we were able to respect each other’s beliefs. So long as everyone is having fun and interacting comfortably with each other, I see no reason not to go. On the other hand, if (as in the case of UCCF’s ‘Free’ meetings) there is a clear missionary goal behind the gathering, I would avoid it.

  • Elsa

    I actually have a Jehovah’s Witness come to my house every week, do a quick Bible study, and then chat. I make my skepticism no secret. She answers my questions about her religion, I learn more about the Bible and Christianity, and we both have a lot of fun together.

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