Atheists at Church part 1: A question from a Coptic friend

A photograph from Carl Wieland's history book

The Western Sydney Freethinkers recently happened to make friends with the Apologetics Group of Archangel Michael & St Bishoy Coptic Orthodox Church. It happened by chance as we struck out to their church to watch comedy creationist Carl Wieland defend the historicity of the Flintstones. Though we expected his usual stand-up routine, the event turned out to be a panel discussion on origins.

It was our delight to discover a group that cares much more than the typical congregation (and it seems many  prominent evangelists) about justifying their beliefs rationally. Since then, we’ve stayed in touch. I even took part in a gentle discussion with a Catholic theologian there last Sunday, but I’ll save the discussion of that for another time, when I’ve got the recording.

We’ve also cross-pollinated our Facebook Groups somewhat. The  level of thoughtful conversation on the Freethinkers’ page has rocketed up. Although, given the starting point of boobs and Harry Kenwell (pbuh), even Carl Wieland would have at least raised the tone as he argued for the plausibility of Bamm-Bamm Rubble’s strength.

One such discussion was taking place the other day, and I wanted to break out and write a fuller answer to one of the points raised. In the discussion, I had introduced this post from the Epiphenom religion-science blog. In it, Tom Rees looks at the paper Religiosity and life satisfaction across nations, by social scientist Adam Okulicz-Kozaryn. Rees explains that the paper suggests (among other things):

Religious service-goers tend to be happier. Teasing apart the data [...] shows that people who go to religious services and belong to religious organisations are happier.

Non-believers tend to be happier. In the same analysis, people who believe in god are much less happy. In other words, the happiest people are those who take part in the social side of religion but don’t take all the god stuff too seriously.

This conclusion prompted on of our new friends to ask, incredulously:

Lol reading this one screaming question comes to mind, how the hell can people be regular church goers, involved in religious services/activities and yet not believe in God? This makes no sense to me, would you mind explaining?

Thinking about this question has led to stream of interconnected ideas, and an answer much longer than a Facebook comment could be, and indeed longer than I prefer my blog posts to be. This, then, is the first in a short series of posts exploring a few thoughts of mine on the topic of belief among church attendees.

I want to make clear that I will not be directly answering my friend’s question for a few posts. Rather, I want to lay out a few ideas that have been prompted by this question, including some I’ve been meaning to write about for a while.

In the meantime, I’d be interested to know how you would answer our friend’s question.

Follow-ups to this post:


  1. Doug McLeod
    Posted September 3, 2011 at 00:19 | Permalink

    Most such people have been brought up as Christians, they were told as little children about God and saw no reason to doubt it… over time their belief has gently faded for want of specific affirmation. Their faith has become a cultural thing; they do not see themselves as unbelievers but nor do they take specific doctrines very seriously.

  2. Posted September 3, 2011 at 09:03 | Permalink

    Happiness is an area that psychology has only recently started to take seriously. Like most interesting things in life, it’s quite complicated with many layers of nuance and dimensions to explore. Martin Seligman has been one of the leaders of this revolution. Although he has his critics, I have a lot of time for his approach.

    Here’s a snippet from a very good summary of what’s been happening lately in this area, and his own philosophy. I think it puts the above into perspective.

    “But everyone finds that as they grow older and look in the mirror they worry that they’re fidgeting until they die. That’s because there’s a third form of happiness that is ineluctably pursued by humans, and that’s the pursuit of meaning. I’m not going to be sophomoric enough to try to tell Edge viewers the theory of meaning, but there is one thing we know about meaning: that meaning consists in attachment to something bigger than you are. The self is not a very good site for meaning, and the larger the thing that you can credibly attach yourself to, the more meaning you get out of life.”

    The whole thing is at:

  3. Posted September 3, 2011 at 10:45 | Permalink

    Many churches have a whole community aspect around them as well. People go every week, start interacting and soon a vibrant community is formed with much social interaction outside of the weekly services as well. I’d suggest it would be more this aspect of churches that create the happiness, friends and family are well known to be great influencing factors on peoples happiness.

    One of the hardest things often spoken about for people who lose their religion is the separation from this community and family. Some often feel they get rejected from their social circles and lose friends, so it’s not really that surprising to me personally to find many would keep this up even if their belief in a god or gods has faded.

  4. Posted September 3, 2011 at 20:04 | Permalink

    Personally, I would point out that I myself have been dragged to church most Sundays of my life, but have been an atheist for around half that now. Yet I am a little conflicted about resisting – I know lots of people there that I’d never see again.
    And then continue as the above commentors…

  5. Posted September 8, 2011 at 12:29 | Permalink

    Thanks for your comments, guys! Lots of bells ringing with me!

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