One of the things I never do anymore is skip church. That used to be one of my favorite things to do when I was a kid. I couldn’t do it on my own — it had to be because my parents had decided we were going to skip church. We would skip church as a whole family. It was one of those things that really brought us together.
Sometimes we would skip church because we were doing something special, like camping or Disneyland. Sometimes we would skip church for reasons that were never really explained at the time. In some ways that was my favorite. You could skip church just because you weren’t going! I will forever associate lingering over the Sunday paper with skipping church.
And I will forever associate donuts with going to church. Well, actually, being done with church. It seems to me that the donuts always came after church was over, either because we stopped at Winchell’s on the way home, or because the donuts would be sitting out in the church lobby or something.
As an adult I don’t particularly like donuts. I think they smell wonderful, but the actual eating of them is vaguely-to-extremely disappointing. That’s probably why, like the smell of overheated car seat vinyl, they will always remind me of childhood.
As an adult, I only go to church for ceremonial occasions, like weddings, or family holidays, or when I visit my grandmother. I go to church with her because that’s what she does. It’s a gesture of respect on my part. I don’t know, she probably knows I don’t go in my regular life anymore. Or maybe she doesn’t want to think about it.
Paul asked me why Protestants go to church. Catholics think participating in Mass is tied to their salvation, but Protestants don’t have Mass. They have church. It’s not a formal requirement, it’s more like a social club. But they go. Why do they?
A few reasons, I think. One of them is that our culture as a whole holds "going to church" as a kind of generalized civic good, like donating blood or recycling or eating your vegetables. If people do it, it makes them feel like better people. If people don’t do it, it makes them feel vaguely as if they ought to be doing it. If they have kids, making their kids go to church makes them feel like better parents.
But, on the flip side, this makes "not going to church" into a kind of safe, socially acceptable self-indulgence, like eating a cupcake or reading a trashy novel. You know you ought to be eating broccoli, and reading Tolstoy, but everyone understands why you don’t. Everyone sympathizes. They do the same thing themselves.
Church is also a built-in social group. This was always true for my parents, who didn’t seem to readily form peer-group friendships any other way. In some ways church functions like any other group formed around a special interest — science fiction, or knitting — but in other ways it’s different. For one thing, these are people who actually feel more or less as if *their god has commanded them* to act nice toward you, even if they actually can’t stand you. This is a bit more powerful of an incentive than the people in your knitting group, who probably feel only the general default social obligation to act civilized.
If you are really dislikable (or shy, or just have trouble forming friendships) this can be quite the bonus. On the negative side, I have always felt that church niceness tends to be a bit — well, shallow and brittle. Or maybe it just seemed that way to me. My parents never seemed to make friends outside of church. I never made friends within church.
Which is kind of funny, now that I think about it. My parents dragged me to church most Sundays from pretty much the time I was born until sometime in the middle of college. There was even one church that I liked a lot, the one where I was baptized and thought I believed all that stuff (ages 10-12, roughly), and I still didn’t make friends there. I dunno, I probably talked to other kids in Sunday school and whatnot. But I don’t remember it. I don’t remember them as individuals. I don’t remember names. I remember the adults — pastors and Sunday school teachers and my parents’ friends. I remember knowing who a few of the kids were, like the preacher’s kids. But we weren’t friends. We didn’t hang out.
Maybe this isn’t surprising at all. Maybe most people don’t make friends in church and my parents were the weird ones. But I wonder. If I made friends in church would I have found the church harder to leave? Or did I not make friends in church for the same reasons that I would eventually leave the church?
So, why did I leave the church? And why did I ever think I believed?
I often ask that question of other people, when I know they’ve left a religion. I’m interested in both conversion and deconversion as a human experience. Deconversion is a bit like divorce, really — there was this concept of the universe, and you thought you loved it so much that you would spend the rest of your life with it. Then eventually you realized you just couldn’t get along anymore. Maybe you still loved it, even though you knew you couldn’t live together. Maybe you had come to hate its guts. Either way, you split up.
So, this post is the first chapter in the story of how I married, then got a divorce from, the church.