Why non-believers go to church

Glasgow Cathedral (Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Glasgow_Cathedral )

Glasgow Cathedral (Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Glasgow_Cathedral )

Music, community, sherry, a snooze. Even atheists or agnostics can find themselves drifting in and out of churches for all kinds of reasons.

Sometimes we are obliged by family, guilt or vague nostalgia. Family obligations, for example, have taken me to a rural Sunday service and, afterwards, amicable chat and sherry with the vicar. In deepest countryside it often is the only show for miles. Sometimes we enter a religious place remembering a connection with something long forgotten, rejected by reason and belief, yet ancient and part of our collective history, an imprint handed down the generations. Or it can be a love of the ritual and the spectacle. Churches after all can be beautiful buildings and atheists can still love stories even if they regard them as fairy tales.

The staunch atheist and architectural critic Ian Nairn, depressed and dying, regularly visited a similar local church in the Sussex countryside. It moved him for its atmosphere developed by ‘slow, loving, gentle accretion, century by century’. It was not that the church was especially beautiful or grand, it was the feeling that unseen hands down the generations had gently loved and cared for something important to them. Churches and other places of worship are often poignant monuments to humanity; sitting in them can have a restorative affect.

During World War One a secret factory in Gretna housed 8,000 young women who carried out the dangerous work of creating cordite for shells. The cordite was cotton wool marinaded in nitro-glycerine and was called the Devil’s Porridge. It was dangerous work but the Gretna girls were rewarded with excellent housing, leisure activities and a generous wage. Others were suffering worse in the war but the lives of the Gretna girls, starved of love and intimacy, could still be tinged with sadness. Most of the girls were unmarried and most of the men were away fighting overseas. The Devil’s Porridge Exhibition outside Gretna has books from the girls full of poems and sayings that long for home, for courtship and for normality. One simple poem sums-up why people might find themselves at church for reasons that perhaps still echo even for today’s congregations.

Some go to church just for a walk

Some go to church to stare and laugh and talk

Some go to church to meet a friend

Some go to church some spare time to spend

Some to scan a robe or bonnet

And to price the ribbon on it

Some go there to snooze and nod

And few to meet and worship God

Another reason might be to listen to some haunting and beautiful music. From hymns to organ recitals, choral to carols our churches can be full of wonderful music that is part of centuries old traditions that are often overlooked, yet are part of Britain’s great musical heritage. Britain’s choral tradition is rooted in its cathedrals’ monastic past and Britain is one of the sole remaining countries in Europe where cathedral choirs sing regularly as part of daily worship.

Evensong (also known as Evening Prayer) is part of the Anglican tradition and is a mixture of a hymns, readings, Anglican chant and anthems sung by the choir in the late afternoon or early evening. “When you come to Evensong here it is as if you were dropping in on a conversation already in progress — a conversation between God and people which began long before you were born and will go on long after you are dead.”

Walking around the old medieval area of Glasgow one winter’s afternoon I found myself at the Scottish Gothic ambience of the Glasgow Cathedral, and by chance, evensong was starting. An organ was playing, an ecclesiastical drone of gentle murmuring gliding through the vaulted aisles. The audience was small, a clandestine appointment for a conversation with God, the ultimate underground music venue. Tourists and walkers drifted-in and, unsure of themselves, sat at the margins. When the small choir sang their notes floated-up the old stone arches to the slender traceried windows.

The voices seeped out into the dark, nourishing and healing this sacred spot. This old grove where once the Molendinar Burn freely flowed; where pagans roamed; where the Bridge of Sighs leads to the city’s prosperous dead; where the city’s founding saint sleeps in the crypt. The voices beguiled and soothed, precipitating day-dreaming and reminiscence.

I left the cathedral to enjoy another fine Christian and monastic tradition, the brewing of beer. Glasgow’s latest micro-brewery bar was a-calling.

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19 thoughts on “Why non-believers go to church

  1. “Sometimes we enter a religious place remembering a connection with something long forgotten, rejected by reason and belief, yet ancient and part of our collective history, an imprint handed down the generations.”

    Indeed. Loved reading this very thoughtful piece. The same could be said for certain old pubs, its always a shame when they are gutted and ‘refurbished’ without a thought for that age old accruing of communal memory and atmosphere. Wherever I travel I always head for the local church, shrine, or temple. The permanence and/or impermanence of these, or even the renewability of certain wooden temple/shrine buildings (e.g. – Ise Jingu in Japan), always makes for fascinating social and historical ponderings for me …

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  2. Lovely post. One of the really valuable things about all religions is that they produce such strong places, because of this very slow accretion of countless rituals and acts of care over many many years. Being in such spaces is tremendously moving because these collective acts of care situate us so strongly in a space – we feel intimately connected to something much larger than ourselves.

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  3. Philip Larkin – Church Going

    Once I am sure there’s nothing going on
    I step inside, letting the door thud shut.
    Another church: matting, seats, and stone,
    And little books; sprawlings of flowers, cut
    For Sunday, brownish now; some brass and stuff
    Up at the holy end; the small neat organ;
    And a tense, musty, unignorable silence,
    Brewed God knows how long. Hatless, I take off
    My cycle-clips in awkward reverence.

    Move forward, run my hand around the font.
    From where I stand, the roof looks almost new –
    Cleaned, or restored? Someone would know: I don’t.
    Mounting the lectern, I peruse a few
    Hectoring large-scale verses, and pronounce
    ‘Here endeth’ much more loudly than I’d meant.
    The echoes snigger briefly. Back at the door
    I sign the book, donate an Irish sixpence,
    Reflect the place was not worth stopping for.

    Yet stop I did: in fact I often do,
    And always end much at a loss like this,
    Wondering what to look for; wondering, too,
    When churches will fall completely out of use
    What we shall turn them into, if we shall keep
    A few cathedrals chronically on show,
    Their parchment, plate and pyx in locked cases,
    And let the rest rent-free to rain and sheep.
    Shall we avoid them as unlucky places?

    Or, after dark, will dubious women come
    To make their children touch a particular stone;
    Pick simples for a cancer; or on some
    Advised night see walking a dead one?
    Power of some sort will go on
    In games, in riddles, seemingly at random;
    But superstition, like belief, must die,
    And what remains when disbelief has gone?
    Grass, weedy pavement, brambles, buttress, sky,

    A shape less recognisable each week,
    A purpose more obscure. I wonder who
    Will be the last, the very last, to seek
    This place for what it was; one of the crew
    That tap and jot and know what rood-lofts were?
    Some ruin-bibber, randy for antique,
    Or Christmas-addict, counting on a whiff
    Of gown-and-bands and organ-pipes and myrrh?
    Or will he be my representative,

    Bored, uninformed, knowing the ghostly silt
    Dispersed, yet tending to this cross of ground
    Through suburb scrub because it held unspilt
    So long and equably what since is found
    Only in separation – marriage, and birth,
    And death, and thoughts of these – for which was built
    This special shell? For, though I’ve no idea
    What this accoutred frowsty barn is worth,
    It pleases me to stand in silence here;

    A serious house on serious earth it is,
    In whose blent air all our compulsions meet,
    Are recognized, and robed as destinies.
    And that much never can be obsolete,
    Since someone will forever be surprising
    A hunger in himself to be more serious,
    And gravitating with it to this ground,
    Which, he once heard, was proper to grow wise in,
    If only that so many dead lie round.

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  4. Great piece Alex! It resonates with me for sure, if not all of us. I would not consider myself a religious person, however I was raised so. I still appreciate the tradition and what certain times of year meant for the family. In the end it wasn’t about the belief system, it was about getting together and sharing an experience with the people you love. If the religious holiday created the excuse to have such fantastic and pleasant memories on these occasions, than by gosh I’m glad to have grown up in a religious environment.

    I enjoyed this one Alex, you put it to words so well.

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    • Many thanks for that. I struggle with what religion has done to people over the years, and how it can oppress people but also understand the attraction of the traditions and rites and the comfort it can bring to people. It’s interesting that you look back at the communal experience and how it provided such positive memories. I think a lot of people would echo that and I certainly look back with similar feelings although I don’t think I felt that way at the time! I also remember funny moments larking with friends at school church but that will slightly bring the tone!

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  5. Great post Alex. Love the Nairn quote which captures the reverence that seems to imbue sites of religious worship whether a local church, shinto shrine or one of the great cathedrals. I also find the latter as indexes of accumulated human labour, all of those hours spent creating these wonderful architectural edifices. I wouldn’t consider myself at all religious (although being in the BBs had plenty drummed into me!) but love to enter these spaces, particularly when you can just wander in, out-with any service, and walk around or sit quietly for a while.

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    • The old cathedrals such as Durham took generations to build with the architects and builders dying before they saw their plans complete. Now we see them complete but for many they must have a labour of love, not just for their God but the generations coming after them. No doubt for others the wages were just survival and beer money and they not have given a fig for the building! Thanks for the kind comments.

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    • Oh that’s a whole can of worms opened-up for debate! I feel there is more than we can understand and we do all need a sense of spirituality, or faith in something bigger than just an individual or society: gods, love, Gaia, history, rituals, traditions, etc. Your personal beliefs, code or spirituality will frame that faith. When belief becomes organised that’s when the trouble starts, but also joy for those who find others of a like mind to share and celebrate with.

      If that’s too wishy-washy blame it on some indulgence last night festering my brain this morning!

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