Separating Practical from Mythical
I was recently having lunch at a popular grocery store/cafe when I overheard the conversation next to me. Two women were speaking to each other about their churches and sharing their personal histories with each other. At one point in the conversation the shorter of the two women mentioned that at some moment in her past a judge had ruled that she might be a danger to herself as well as her husband and children. There was talk of suicide and some other troubling situations, but apparently this had happened before her becoming a Christian which “turned her life around”.
I grew up in Christianity. From the time I was born and continuing for over 30 years I attended church (often several times a week). Throughout those 30+ years I was considered a regular attendee of at least 6 different churches. I had gone through Sunday Schools, VBS (Vacation Bible Schools), Youth Groups, Summer Church Camps, Worship teams, and various other church activities. I was a Christian for the majority of my life. I prayed (“spoke with God”), read my Bible (on my own and in Bible Studies), was in a Christian Rock Band with some friends and a few more religious things which I’m embarrassed to talk about now. Recently, I gave all of it up after a year of deep studies, serious questions, long conversations with other Christians and pastors, and some hard thinking. I’m now the happiest I’ve ever been and very confident in my atheism.
That being said, during my years as a Christian, I heard many heart-felt stories similar to that woman’s story. People who had lost everything, people who were sick, people who were angry, sad, lonely or severely depressed and through their church (and Christianity) they were able to turn their life around.
When I hear stories like this I always have to wonder how (or if) they tried to remedy their own situations beforehand. As an atheist I don’t believe that prayer is anything but talking to yourself. However as an action, it may be very therapeutic. The person who is praying is airing their concerns, sometimes audibly, and sometimes in the presence of others. The mere act of daily stating your concerns, forces you to re-examine them, whereas someone who isn’t praying may be avoiding their problems completely and hoping they’ll go away.
When you attend a church, you are putting yourself into a group setting whereas before you may have been all alone. You hear about other people’s troubles or joys, which helps to put your own problems into perspective. You might hear about how someone else was able to handle a certain situation in their life which may be the same or at least similar to the situation that you’re going through. You might hear a motivational speech (a sermon), which may get you to think about your life (depending on how good the speaker is). Even if the speaker isn’t so great, the mere environment of the church building; warm colors on the walls or floors, artistic stained glass or statues or ornate crosses, flowers or incense, people dressed in their best clothing, helps to create a sense of comfort.
Many churches have a moment where you greet other members, shaking hands, hugging or maybe just holding hands during a song. Whatever the case, it is creating a form of human contact, interactions which you may not have had on your own. There’s also the freedom of talking to people outside of your immediate circle of friends. Often times it is easier to speak about your problems to a stranger, or someone you may have limited interaction with rather than someone that you are close to. You sing songs together in a large group of people. The sound of all the voices together may comfort you, again showing that you’re not alone.
One of the most important concepts in Christianity is the idea of “letting go.” Pastor’s will preach that when you are holding on to anger, or resentment, or a problem that you have no control over, you need to “give it over to God’s hand” and then let it go. That means to stop worrying about it. To forgive the person who may have done you harm. To stop stressing over the inevitable and to “trust that God” will work it out. While I don’t believe that a god has anything to do with the resolution of those situations, I do believe that being able to let go of your problems is a HUGE step in overcoming them.
So what’s my point? Am I saying that Christianity isn’t helping people? Yes and No. All those actions that I talked about do help people, but those actions can easily be separated from Christianity and still have the same impact. Participate in group activities, such as help groups or even basic volunteer work. Go to a play or a concert to surround yourself with people. Visit an art museum or go on a hike to see the beauty that exists in life. Talk to a counselor or therapist. Take a good hard look at your problems, and how they are affecting you. Accept responsibility for the things that you can change, and let go of the things that you can’t. You don’t need to turn to religion to solve your problems, you have the power to solve them all on your own!