My mom sent me a message today that poses an interesting question for agnostic parents, especially an agnostic like me who was once a Christian: Should I be sending my son to church? After listening to the podcast of an interview I did for Artist First Radio, she wrote of my answers, “What I noticed was the need for community… Noah needs that for his opportunity to develop a faith journey. You may continue to question and think and intellectualize until the cows come home, but a community is where faith develops.”
My first response is a bit defensive. Either due to the answers I gave or to my mom’s wishful thinking, she presumes I want my faith to develop. I’m not sure what that would mean for me, but I don’t think my particular lack of faith is something she wants me to foster, so I presume she wants me to develop in some other direction. As someone who lost his faith while deeply involved in a truly excellent church, my experience doesn't support the notion that communities naturally lead to faith, nor do I want to go through the painful process of extricating myself from a loving community ever again.
The point that really piques my curiosity is the one about my son, Noah. Mom says he needs an opportunity for his faith to develop. That’s a very challenging idea for me, as an agnostic. The central tenant of my religion (or, more accurately, my position on religion), is that I don’t know and do not believe I am capable of knowing about the existence and nature of the supernatural. So do I owe it to Noah to give him the same experience I had, considering the conclusions I’ve come to?
If I were an atheist, this would be much simpler. If someone told an atheist to take his son to church so that his son’s faith could develop, the atheist could respectfully reply that, while some church time might be valuable for the cross-cultural experience, since the basic principle of all houses of worship hinges on the belief that there is a God, and since the atheist believes this to be untrue, sending his son to a church would be tantamount to intentionally exposing his child to a lie in order that the son might develop a deepening belief in a myth. In that case, it’s clear that the atheist wouldn’t be asked in the first place, and if he were, we would all understand why he would decline.
It’s not as straight forward for an agnostic. I can’t refuse to take Noah to a church on the grounds that he will be exposed to lies. As an agnostic, I don’t know that the teachings he would hear in a church are true or untrue. Instead, I have to evaluate whether or not it’s worthwhile to expose him to something I myself am unsure of. In that case, the question becomes a bit more nuanced; now it’s a question of the authority of the church, my authority as a parent, and the danger of the persuasiveness of certainty.
As a high school English teacher, every year I have to carefully explain to students why it’s preferable to avoid first person pronouns in their formal writing. When I was a kid, teachers would just say, “It’s wrong. Don’t do it.” They presented this as though the rule were as hard and fast as the most basic rules of spelling and simple grammar. Unfortunately for them, students could pick up high quality formal writing in respected sources and find personal pronouns all over the place. Did this mean the writers were bad? Did it mean the teachers were wrong? Neither. It meant the true edict should have been explained more fully. There’s nothing inherently wrong with personal pronouns in formal writing. If the purpose of a piece is to persuade the reader, for example, and the writer makes a determination that the most effective technique to persuade a particular audience involves some evidence from the writer’s own experience, personal pronouns in personal narratives are actually a good choice. The reason writers should learn to avoid them is that, far too often, beginners use personal pronouns to qualify what they’re writing about. Instead of, “Moby Dick is a novel about obsession,” they write “I think Moby Dick is a novel about obsession,” or “In my personal opinion, Mody Dick is a novel about obsession.” The use of the personal pronouns, in these cases, diminishes the authority of the writer and of her ideas. She’s far better served to express her opinions as though they are facts. We, the readers, will know these are her opinions because her name is on the paper. These qualifiers are either a sign of a lack of confidence in her ideas or of a kind of false humility that can have the unintended consequence of turning the reader against the writer. “Writing,” I tell my students, “is an act of courage. You are bravely sharing your ideas. So be brave! Be bold! If you have the guts to put it on the page and then put it in front of someone’s eyeballs, follow through and write with conviction.” I tell them this because I know that statements made with a tone of certainty are for more persuasive.
That very certainty is the hallmark of the kind of faith one finds presented at churches, and it’s also precisely what drove me away from my faith. I was lucky enough to have a pastor who was very open about his own doubts, but he still had a lot more faith than I did, and I couldn’t reconcile my own limited, human comprehension of the divine with that kind of certainty. The pastor has to be at least certain enough to do her job. I do not believe that level of certainty is advisable since I don’t think that kind of knowledge of the divine is possible (at least for me).
Consequently, if I send my son to church, I’m saying, “Dad isn’t sure what’s true. These people are remarkably, sometimes even dangerously sure of what they believe. Go decide for yourself.” Since I know certainty is persuasive, I’m knowingly bringing a knife to a gun fight and asking my son to make a prediction about the outcome. “Who do you think is right?” I’m asking. “The guy who isn’t sure or the institution which claims to be?” In this context, it’s not fair to say I’m simply letting him make up his own mind, something that I sincerely want for him. Instead, I’m pretending that I want him to make up his own mind while putting a finger on the scales, and for the other side!
This brings me to the next question: If I know that attending a church is likely to persuade a 9-year-old to become a Christian, is that something I should do? This question is actually harder than it might appear, since I had a host of positive experiences in church. Besides the friends I made, I learned songs I’m glad I know, I worked for folks who were down on their luck on mission trips, I learned to focus my mind during open worship (a time of deep prayer similar to meditation but focused outward on God), and a bunch of other things. I became a much better reader through church, first improving my fluency by reading above my parents’ fingers as they helped me learn to sing along to the lyrics of hymns, then learning to read critically as I studied the Bible on my own and in Sunday school classes. I learned that I love to come up with arguments and debate philosophical ideas while trying to prove the existence of God and debating free-will vs. predestination. I even had some distinctly un-churchy experiences thanks to church. My first kiss was at a church camp (horribly embarrassing, but I got it out of the way), my first real make out session was at a church lock-in, and my first serious girlfriend was someone I met through Youth Group.
These valuable experiences of community might outweigh some of the potential dangers of church attendance, though those are worth considering, too. Since I would be taking him to a church sight-unseen, I might be exposing him to some of the elements of American Christianity I find most repugnant. He could hear anti-feminist, gender essentialist rhetoric from the pulpit. He could hear anti-gay propaganda. He could hear closed-minded attitudes towards other religions. He would almost certainly eventually hear regressive attitudes about sexuality. He might hear some of that anti-science rhetoric (or the even more unethical, deceptive Intelligent Design variant). Hell, he could hear some of that Gospel-of-Wealth bullshit that even flies in the face of Jesus’ own teachings about wealth and responsibility to the poor. Those would all be things I’d feel compelled to confront, further confusing him.
But even if I managed to find a progressive church that I didn’t need to argue against on social grounds, I still don’t think the value of community outweighs the danger of a community whose beliefs are antithetical to my own. Here’s why: Imagine I lived in a similarly small town, but in some far off country, and there were no Christian churches. Would my mom be encouraging me to take Noah to the local mosque or Sikh or Buddhist or Shinto temple? I doubt it. I think, at its core, the notion that some-community-is-better-than-no-community is rooted in the assumption that the-default-community-will-be-my-community. Only, Christianity isn’t my community anymore. As an agnostic, I’m not a Christian who is searching, not someone who is part of the un-Church movement, not a post-modern Christian. I’m someone who fundamentally believes that there may or may not be a God (or gods), but that if higher intelligences exist outside our ability to perceive them with our senses or accurately describe them with our imperfect, human language, then, by definition, they also exist beyond our comprehension. Furthermore, I believe that religions which simultaneously preach submission to an all-powerful deity (an expression of humility) but also dictate a command to have some degree of certainty in their particular conception of that deity (an act of hubris) have an irreconcilable consistency problem.
Ultimately, while I respect and admire a lot of things about Christianity (the architecture, the music, the care for one another and for those outside the community itself, the elevation of literacy and education, many of the dictates about how people should treat one another) and admire and respect a lot of individual Christians (my mom foremost among them), it’s simply not my religion. Consequently, I don’t feel compelled to deposit my son into someone else’s community so that he can develop his faith in someone else’s god.
If my wife (a Christian) wants to take him to church, that would be fine, but that's completely up to her. If my parents want to take him to church, I'd be fine with that, too. It just shouldn't be me.
But, every year at Christmas time, I do wish he knew more of the songs.