A reader sighs:
Wow. These last few letters get to the heart I think of what drives so many of us non-believers crazy. Here we have Christians telling an atheist that he should make a mockery of the priest’s exhortation by essentially lying in a house of worship. Then we have another insinuating that non-believers aren’t welcome at church. I would remind those readers that it wasn’t the atheist who couldn’t handle the call for affirmation; it was the family who couldn’t handle his respectful honesty. The right answer here isn’t for the priest to change his tradition nor for the atheist to stay home or pretend he’s something he’s not. The right answer is for Christians like this reader’s in-laws to grow up and realize that atheists are everywhere, they’re not boogeymen, and being in the presence of one isn’t a reason to be upset. Ever.
What exactly did the brother-in-law do wrong? This isn’t a simple mid-week mass where it can be reasonably assumes that all attendees are Catholic. This was a funeral. Is it reasonable for the priest to think that all her friends and family share the same religion? Is it unreasonable to think that some non-coreligionists would want to pay their respects to the deceased or support her surviving family? It’s not okay for an atheist to skip the funeral of a loved one just because it’s held in a house of worship, and by the same token it’s not okay for the minister to ignore the fact that, at such times, not everyone will be members of their faith.
The story resonates for another reader:
Your readers’ less-than-sympathetic responses to the atheist who chose not to stand up to “affirm his belief” at his wife’s sister’s funeral reminds me of my mother’s experience with her church.
She is not very religious, but a believer of sorts, and someone who really enjoyed attending church at Christmas and Easter. (She liked the music and the singing and the space and time to get in touch with god.) But about five years ago at a Christmas service, during the hymn where the congregation sings “We will raise him up, we will raise him up, we will raise him up in the highest,” the priest gestured in such a way as to indicate that everyone should raise up their hands while singing. Most everyone did this, but my mother was uncomfortable with this kind of outward expression and chose not to participate. She mentioned her discomfort to the priest as she was walking out of the service, and, as she tells it, he icily smiled at her and said, “There are plenty of other churches in the neighborhood at which you would not have this problem.” Or something to that effect. “I’ve just been excommunicated from my local church,” she thought. And she hasn’t attended that – or any other – church since.
These kinds of public expressions feel very coercive, if not downright creepy. Not just to atheists like me, or wavering believers like my mother, but, I would think, to everyone. If you don’t participate, or participate fully, you might be looked down upon, ostracized. In the case of my mother, its practical effect was to weed out the less devoted members of the congregation. I can’t help but think this is part of the ritual’s appeal. The true believers would rather not have the less-than-true-believers and non-believers around – not even at a Christmas service, or at funerals of their close relations.
Update from the earlier reader who spurred backlash from the in-tray:
I’m the “dickhead” atheist who wrote about my experience at the Catholic funeral for my wife’s sister. You printed some critical responses, which I read with interest. However, a few remarks smacked of the kind of religious arrogance that turn non-believers like me into “dickhead” atheists. One wrote:
Perhaps one could argue that a funeral (or a marriage), bringing together many disparate friends and relatives of the deceased should be a more neutral occasion than a regular church service, but just how sensitive to the feelings of the irreligious do we need to be in our own houses of worship? Atheists who cannot deal with calls for affirmation of belief in a church probably need to think very hard about going into them in the first place.
Perhaps a funeral or marriage should be a more neutral occasion than a regular church service? Why “perhaps”? Is it vitally important in a house of worship that all who enter must believe and act accordingly? In a church I bow my head during prayers, I open the hymnal to the page of the song, I kneel when everyone else kneels. I do this out of respect, and every atheist I know does the same. Is respect in a house of worship a one-way street? All I asked was that when there are two ways to ask those in attendance to affirm their belief in Jesus’s love, pick the one that doesn’t offend or embarrass.
Many atheists are still in the closet for practical reasons. I find it offensive that religious folks suggest that maybe atheists should just stay away from weddings or funerals in houses of worship if we’re worried that the priest or minister might force us to out ourselves, or lie instead.
My wife needed me at that service. Even if I had known what was going to happen, I would have gone. By remaining seated I outed myself to people who didn’t need to know I’m an atheist any more than they need to know I’m uncircumcised. If I had stood I would have lied. There were other options that wouldn’t have put non-Christians on the spot, but then, as some assert, why should religious people give a damn about the irreligious in their house of worship?
To the writer who asked, “How would a better understanding and acceptance of atheism among the general populace have changed that moment?”, the “dickhead atheist” responds:
I don’t believe the priest in question meant to embarrass non-believers; he just lives in a religious bubble most of the time. A better understanding that there are a lot of atheists in the world, some of whom will likely attend funerals and weddings in his church might have spurred him to change how he asked people to show their love for his God.
Read the entire discussion thread here.