Forgive Me, Father, for I Have Sinned: An Atheist Confesses

A short time ago, I wrote an article for titled, “Sing of Jesus: An Atheist’s Guide to Working for the Catholic Church,” in which I recounted some of my experiences working as a church cantor in spite of the fact that I don’t believe in God. In the piece, I point out that my story differs from that of the evangelist-turned-apostate since I did not enter into a life of ministry only to lose my faith and be forced to reevaluate my whole concept of the universe. I went to work for the church because I was a singer and they paid me to sing. Simple as that. I didn’t have to wrestle with my faith because I’d already joined the ranks of the nonbelievers.

It’s that last part that has prompted my confession, for to say that I was a nonbeliever wouldn’t be entirely true. At the time I took the job, I didn’t identify as an atheist. If pressed to describe what my beliefs really were, I would often answer (with no small measure of youthful impudence) that I was an apathist. Maybe there was a god, maybe there wasn’t, but either way I didn’t really care. It had no effect on my life, and I honestly couldn’t understand why other people felt so strongly about it. But apparently they did and, hey, who knew, maybe they were right so more power to ’em. To each his or her own, I guess.

But I didn’t care. I was an Apathist.

However, at some point while working as a cantor I did begin to care. Not about God or faith or Jesus, but about the messages being sent from the altar and the people listening to those messages. Because here’s the thing—the vast majority of the people I’ve met, worked with, and sung for at the church over the past ten-plus years are really good people who try to do good for others. Many of them donate money to charitable causes, volunteer at our local homeless shelter, and give of their time and income to the church, an organization that they truly believe works for the betterment of all humankind.

And yet, as I sat in church every week and listened to reading after reading, psalm after psalm, sermon after sermon, I came to apprehend that the church is not working for the betterment of humankind. Even a quick scan of history shows me quite plainly that society regresses when religion is the dominant force in a culture. Things only get better when reason and critical thinking are the guiding principles. Put another way, when religion prevails, we get the Dark Ages. When reason wins, we get the Enlightenment.

I’ve heard it said that the fastest way to turn believers into atheists is to have them actually read the Bible. If that’s true, then the second fastest way has to be to have them attend four or more masses every weekend. That was my conversion. That’s what led me to choose a side. Can you imagine being a priest and having to justify readings like Colossians 3:18 (“Wives, submit to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord”)? Honestly, sometimes I feel bad for those guys.

Because that’s ultimately what every homily I’ve ever heard is. It’s the priest attempting to justify whatever bizarre readings have been plucked from the “good book” on that day (at least on the days that they’re not asking for money). These men aren’t illuminating the wisdom of an ancient text. They’re trying to circle the square and make it sound as if some outdated Bronze Age ideology still applies to the modern world.

In the first few months I worked for the church, I really did try to listen to those homilies, internalize them, and see if I could discern some kind of wisdom in there. But in every case, I reacted in one of two ways: I either felt pity for the poor priest tasked with having to make sense of a senseless text, or anger and frustration at having to listen to his twisted logic and circular reasoning, feelings that were compounded when I would look into the faces of the congregation as they nodded along in a desperate attempt to appear as though they were actually buying any of it.

Those feelings soon began to extend beyond the walls of the parish to the world at large. It’s practically impossible to pick up a newspaper and not read at least one story that illustrates the rise of anti-intellectualism, either driven or justified by religious fundamentalism, and the negative effects it has on our society. On every social issue from gay rights to abortion to the imagined “debates” about climate change and evolution, religion—and those who would wield its dubious authority—comes down on the wrong side, threatening to halt the progress of our society. (Though I must pause and give credit to Pope Francis for using his influence to take on the issue of climate change.)

In time I found I could no longer ride the fence on the question of faith. Being bombarded by the messaging of the Catholic Church, I felt it necessary to seek out opposing viewpoints. Enter Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins.

What was so amazing to me as I read the one-two punch of God is Not Great and The God Delusion was that what they were saying didn’t seem at all revelatory to me. It was more like everything that I had been feeling but could not fully express was being put into words—eloquent, thoughtful, sometimes funny, sometimes angry words—right before my eyes. For the first time, I felt that it was okay for me to identify as an atheist. It didn’t make me a bad person. And I was not alone.

So that’s my confession; I wasn’t particularly interested in matters of faith when I began my religious employment, but it’s somewhat misleading to say that I was a full-blown atheist. I hadn’t quite taken that step.

To truly become an atheist, I had to go to church.