This is a guest post written by David G. McAfee. He is author, most recently, of The Belief Book.
Whether you’re an atheist, agnostic, skeptic, or all of the above, there’s a good chance you’ll end up attending a religious ceremony at some point. You might be forced (or pressured) to go to church or temple by your family, or asked to go to some other religious event to support a friend, but attending these services doesn’t have to a bad experience. It all depends on your perspective.
When I was a kid, I was incredibly interested in religion. I was never a believer, but I attended churches all the times with my family and friends — sometimes up to three times per week. This wasn’t to let the clergy convert me or so that I could tell them they were wrong; it wasn’t even to support my loved ones. I went because I wanted to find out more about what people believed and why they believed it. Little did I know, I was learning about religions and beliefs in a way that would greatly benefit me when I got older.
Today, as an atheist and author who writes about religious issues, I get messages all the time from teens who are being forced to go to church or temple or mosque. I even get e-mails from adults who don’t want to attend funerals or other ceremonies for their loved ones because of possible religious involvement. So what do I tell these people? It’s pretty simple: “Be an anthropologist! Take notes! Learn everything you can about this group and their beliefs.”
Here’s just one of the many letters I’ve received on the topic of forced church attendance. This message is from a teenage fan who we will call Sean:
Dear David, I follow your page and I’m a big fan of your work. I am 15, and an atheist. I live with my mom and my sister, and my mom is a Christian. She knows I am a non-believer, but she forces me to go to church every week, even though she knows I’m an atheist. Like you have said before, she forces religion on my younger sister, who is only 9, taking advantage of her undeveloped mind. I don’t know what to do. She forces me to go every week and I’m sitting in church thinking about how people believe this stuff. It’s illogical nonsense. I don’t know what to do about this situation.
And here’s my response:
Hi Sean, your problem is a common one. In fact, I remember my grandparents forcing me to go to church on days when I would rather have done anything but. My advice might sound unusual, but hear me out. Assuming that you have voiced your concerns thoroughly and reasonably to your mom, and she continues to make you attend the services, I would recommend using that time to learn about the religion.
When I realized that people believed what they heard in church, I was genuinely intrigued by the religious stories I was told. My interest in religions and why people believe them stayed strong and I ended up majoring in Religious Studies in college. The point is that, if you learn all you can from an outsider’s perspective, you can apply that to your life. You could treat church as a classroom where you learn about Christian mythology, and even look for inaccuracies and flaws in the religious texts. I would hope that your mom would respect your wishes not to go to church, but there’s nothing wrong with making the best of a bad situation until you’re old enough to make that decision on your own.
As for your sister, I think religious education is the answer. Teaching her about the different world religions and about what church means to some people will help her understand the context of her trips — and that’s exactly what I tried to accomplish with The Belief Book. Once your sister understands religions better, she may be able to tolerate (or even enjoy!) the event and learn from it without necessarily believing the stories”
Going to church (or any other religious ceremony) doesn’t have to be about forced religious indoctrination or unwanted proselytization; you can make the most out of the experience. You can learn, grow, and challenge yourself. You can put forth appropriate questions, be honest about your disbelief when asked about it, and respectfully participate. You may hear a new story from a religious text or you might even discover the sense of community believers often feel, but no matter what you have the opportunity to learn something new. I say seize it.
David G. McAfee is a Religious Studies graduate, journalist, and author of The Belief Book, a children’s book explaining the origins of beliefs and religion, and Mom, Dad, I’m an Atheist: The Guide to Coming Out as a Non-believer. He is also an editor for Ockham Publishing and a contributor to American Atheist Magazine. McAfee attended University of California, Santa Barbara, and graduated with bachelor’s degrees in English and Religious Studies with an emphasis on Christianity and Mediterranean religions.
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