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Do Any Atheists Go to Church? Why Would Atheists Attend Church Services?

Some Atheists Must Doubt their Atheism if they Go to Church

By

Colonial Church in Georgia

Colonial Church in Georgia

Photo: Charles Fenno Jacobs/Getty

Question:
Do any atheists go to church? If so, why?

Response:
The idea of atheists attending church services seems contradictory. Doesn't that require belief in God? Doesn't a person have to believe in a religion in order to attend it's worship services? Isn't freedom on Sunday morning one of the benefits of atheism? Although most atheists don't count themselves as part of religions which require regular attendance at churches or other houses of worship, you can still find some who do attend such services from time to time or even regularly.

The reasons for such attendance are varied. Some atheists do count themselves as members of religious groups which encourage attendance at Sunday morning meetings or services. Being an atheist means not believing in any gods — it doesn't mean not being religious in any fashion. Most religions are theistic and so atheists won't be adherents of those faiths, but it isn't true that all religions are theistic.

In the United States there are several groups which count themselves as religious but either don't require belief in any gods or actually discourage belief in the traditional god of orthodox Christianity. These groups include Ethical Culture, the Unitarian-Universalist Church, and a variety of Religious Humanist organizations. Many, many atheists are members of these groups and regularly attend meetings or services on Sunday mornings (or at some other time during the week).

Such examples may be obvious exceptions to the tendency of atheists not to go to church, but there are also atheists who can be found at the Friday, Saturday, or Sunday services of even traditional, theistic religious faiths. Some enjoy the music. Some attend for the sake of harmony and unity within their families. Others appreciate the chance to take time out of their hectic schedules in the context of something that challenges them to think differently about some of life's more enduring mysteries. Granted, they don't actually agree with many of the premises and conclusions offered during the sermons, but that doesn't stop them from being able to appreciate the positions described and from finding interesting insights into human nature and life's journey.

Of course, not every church will provide such a safe place to explore deep questions involving religion, spirituality, and life itself. A fire-and-brimstone fundamentalist church would make even the most tolerant and open-minded atheist a bit uncomfortable. On the other hand, an extremely liberal and wishy-washy church might not provide enough interesting food for thought. For an atheist to find the right sort of church would require quite a bit of research and testing.

This brings us to another reason why an atheist might attend religious services: to learn, first hand, what members of different religious faiths really believe and how they express those beliefs. You can learn quite a lot from books and magazines, but in the end you can miss a lot if you don't try to develop at least some first-hand experiences.

An atheist seeking to learn more probably won't be involved with regular attendance at a particular church; instead, they are more likely to be involved with attending a number of churches, mosques, temples, and such on an irregular basis in order to find out what they are like at different times of the year. This doesn't mean that they are considering abandoning their skepticism or critical stance vis-a-vis religion and theism; it just means that they are curious about what others believe and think that they might be able to learn something, even from those they disagree with quite strongly.

How many religious theists can say the same? How many religious theists take the time to attend religious services at other denominations and groups within their own faith tradition — Catholics going to Quaker services or white Episcopalians attending a black Baptist church? How many go outside their tradition — Christians going to a mosque on Friday or Jews going to Hindu ashram? How many people from any of these groups attend meetings of skeptics or services at a Unitarian church that hosts primarily humanist atheists?

Finally, there is the fact that some atheists may simply not be able to "come out of the closet" and tell people that they are atheists. If they are part of a family or community where attendance at religious worship services is an expected norm, a person cannot avoid attending without signaling to everyone that their beliefs are no longer in sync with everyone's else's. At the very least, their adherence to the traditional faith has changed; in some cases, that may be perceived as enough to be treated as a form of betrayal or scandal. If the person reveals that they are in fact an atheist, it might be too much for some to accept. Rather than deal with so much drama and conflict, some atheists just continue to pretend that they believe and keep up appearances. What does this say about religion if it forces people to lie about themselves in this way?

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