The Humanist Dilemma: Is It Wrong for an Atheist to Pledge Faith?

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One of them, but… In need of community, I have regularly been attending a neighborhood church. I like everything about this church (the pastor, the people, the Sunday service, the liberal stance on issues that I am passionate about, and ancillary activities, including yoga and meditation). As an atheist, however, there is a basic tenet I obviously do not adhere to: belief in God and Jesus Christ. (It is a church, after all, not a secular community center.) Despite this, for the comfort I receive in a non-religious way, I am considering formally becoming a member of this church. This would mean professing belief (perhaps even being baptized). I know I would be lying, as if under oath. Would joining the church therefore be an unethical act?

-Cross Fingers behind Back?

Dear Fingers,

Yes, you would be lying under oath. But how many other members of this or any religious institution don’t really believe in a supernatural god but stick with the organization nonetheless, for whatever benefits they derive? How many pastors don’t themselves believe? Would their hypocrisy or dishonesty mitigate yours? I suspect you are giving this much more thought than the typical people who join because that’s what just what they do (for instance, if they were raised in that church). And a young atheist I know who faked his way through his bar-mitzvah to please his family says in response to your question, “Who cares?”

Well, you do, and I do. Although I don’t condemn you if you really want to become a full member of this community, I can’t encourage anyone to profess belief in any god (or any other thing) they don’t believe in, unless there’s a price to pay for not doing so (such as being shunned or executed). But this is not your situation. I don’t really understand why you can’t continue to participate without formal membership. Is there any aspect of the experience you would be barred from if you remained just a regular visitor? If it’s about supporting the organization, surely they’d be happy to accept a donation regardless of your membership status.

It would be unethical to profess faith you don’t have. It’s a lie that you’d be voluntarily reciting not only to your fellow congregants, but also to all us non-believers out here. Consider what it means that an organization you otherwise embrace would require you to pledge allegiance to something you don’t support. If you refuse, would they reject you? What does that say about them—and about you, if you were to do it? How could you be honest in discussions about beliefs you professed but don’t really uphold?

Wouldn’t it be infinitely better if you could openly express your true views? What you are considering doing is the opposite of what Greta Christina and others advocate: taking a stand by simply telling people what you believe. By falsely professing faith, you would be covering up and hiding your truth, as though you were ashamed of it. And isn’t it a bit cynical to suggest it doesn’t matter what you profess if you don’t believe in the god you are supposedly professing it to (or at least about)?

Aside from the option of continuing to enjoy this church without becoming a member, have you explored other alternatives, such as Ethical Culture or Unitarian Universalist groups? These organizations tend to be very light on the god stuff, and are often populated with avowed non-believers. Although there is a degree of unmet need for secular organizations that provide the kind of community many find in churches, another path for you could be a non-religious group of some kind. Finding a secular place or activity you enjoy with other people you can relate to might help satisfy the sense of community you crave. For example, I’m in a couple volunteer gardening groups in a public park and sing in a secular chorus, and those give me regular doses of fellowship and spirituality without compromising my core values. If your need for community has anything to do with death or loss, you might be interested in looking into “Grief Beyond Belief.”

Although I understand your impulse, I’m disturbed by the idea of you making a false pledge and possibly getting baptized. But if you really can’t find another group that resonates with you and you continue to feel the need to do whatever is required to become a full-fledged member of this church, I guess that’s between you and your conscience. I suspect the god you don’t believe in won’t mind, even if it were to exist.

Do consider owning and expressing your non-belief within this group and see what happens. You might be pleasantly surprised. On the other hand, if these warm, welcoming people were to become frosty once you reveal you’re an atheist, would you still want to be one of them?