Afternoon Inquisition

AI: A Choir of Heathens

Today, reader “Pete” wrote in with an interesting conundrum for the Skepchick community:

I’ve recently decided that church is no longer for me, for a multitude of reasons, many of which can be found on fabulous websites like Skepchick. However, at the church at which I was a member, I was also heavily involved in their music program, including as a volunteer director of a small ensemble or two. I did it (do it) because I loved it, not because it gave me religious satisfaction.

I’d like to ask the skepchick community whether they think it would be dishonest of me, or somehow compromising my new (well, I can’t say beliefs…) stance on life to continue in the program?


Also, dear readers, I (Rebecca) will add this:

Have you ever pretended to be a believer in something to fulfill some need?

The Afternoon Inquisition (or AI) is a question posed to you, the Skepchick community. Look for it to appear daily at 3pm ET.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor.

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  1. I am very clearly identified as an atheists in my community. I am also a BIG fan of gospel music. Country gospel I sing out loud – its great music, FTW.

  2. I don’t see anything wrong with it, personally.

    However, maybe he should look for a secular music program in his area? Or maybe he can volunteer at a public school?

    To answer the question, I’m pretty sure everyone at work just assumes I believe in god, and I’ve never said anything to change their minds. I don’t actively “pretend” I believe, but I’m careful not to say anything that might give the impression that I’m an atheist, mostly because I don’t think it’s anyone’s business here at work, and I have no desire to get into a discussion on my personal beliefs at work.

    I do the same when I’m with people I know who are very religious or somewhat intolerant of or just confused about atheism.

    That said! I also want to suggest he look for a program with an LGBT church, if there are any local. They are generally very, very accepting of just about everyone. I’m very honest about my atheism when I’m volunteering with a local LGBT church and they really don’t seem to even care, nor do they preach or try to change my mind.

    Oh, and some of my girl friends who are very into astrology don’t know I find it absolutely ridiculous, and I have played along with them on several occasions. It’s just so silly, I can’t be bothered to fight against it.

    But I continue to *eye roll* when they make inane “Mercury is in retrograde OMG!” facebook status messages.

  3. I see church services as theatre. Just because you don’t like the script doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy performing. Some of the greatest music ever written is church music. It would be a great loss to discard it just because you don’t agree with the lyrics. I did grand opera for years. In most operas the words suck but that didn’t stop me from loving the music.

  4. If you can’t make your current church work, you might check out the Unitarian Universalist. I don’t go myself, but from what I understand their tent is pretty big (big enough to include non-believers).


  5. I would be honest with the leader of your former church and let the chips fall where they may. Either he/she will understand and will let you continue or he/she won’t. But I would not advise staying in the religious closet.

  6. I think continuing in the program does a disservice to skeptics. One of the mantras the xian right likes to trot out is the universality of a believe in god and in America specifically the xian god. By silently mixing in to a religious service you are helping perpetuate this belief. Plus the more non-theist musicians there are in the world looking for like-minded people the more opportunities there will be for music in non-religious settings.

  7. My kids are Jewish and go to Hebrew school. The school (knowing I’m an atheist) contacted me to ask if I teach knot tying at a gathering they were having because I’m a scout leader. I had no issue with it and they clearly had no issue with my lack of faith. If that is the case, I don’t see the problem.

    However, I was told I could not be a scout leader if I were an avowed atheist.

    This is Scouts Canada not the BSA. Atheist kids are allowed (and there is no issue with homosexuality) but as a leader I must “believe in something larger than my self”. I was tempted to say “like volunteering to help kids?” or any of the other answers that atheists can give to this simple minded question.

    I decided to not tell them; it’s their problem IMO and I don’t see why I should deprive the kids of the chance to learn cool things like playing with fire and knives (and I sure as hell want them to learn to do it safely) .

  8. @davew: But that’s the Christian right. Not all Christians are right-wingers, nor are all Christian churches.

    We have a Catholic church here in Chandler, AZ, that is headed by a lesbian pastor. They are decidedly not part of the right-wing.

  9. @marilove:

    I don’t actively “pretend” I believe, but I’m careful not to say anything that might give the impression that I’m an atheist, mostly because I don’t think it’s anyone’s business here at work, and I have no desire to get into a discussion on my personal beliefs at work.

    That was the exact work attitude I had when my brother transitioned from being my sister.

    @Malfeitor:COTW seconded!

    @davew: I don’t see how enjoying a music program does any of us a disservice.

  10. I think I’m in agreement with @PrimevilKneivel: although, the church (if they find out) might take issue with your baby-eating ways.
    I’ve been a best man twice. Both were church ceremonies. I did it for my love of the couples, not for any perceived Jesus-ness. The first time (Catholic ceremony) I think I even took communion, mainly because I was at the altar in front of 200 people and didn’t want to cause kerfuffle. (This was also before I made up my mind on where I stood with my religion-losing).

  11. @PrimevilKneivel:
    “@davew: I don’t see how enjoying a music program does any of us a disservice.” Yeah, There’s a church right out my kitchen window. On Sunday afternoons, they have a long service and the live band rocks the block! All Gospel, all day. And it’s really good.

  12. @Billy Clyde Tuggle:

    Yeah, I thought about suggesting the same thing. I’ve heard that they have all the things people like about organized religion, but without the religious requirement. I’ve considered finding a UU church for myself, but I just don’t like getting up early on weekends.

  13. @PrimevilKneivel:
    “Well, I believe in Mount Everest. Does that count?” ;-)

    Pete, I think it’s up to you. How comfortable do you feel in the situation? Is there a reason to give it up or to tell anyone at church?

    I gave up religion and eventually my wife and kids figured it out. I quit pretending that I believed, but didn’t go too far in public (outside the family). It fulfilled a need for my wife to believe that she had married a GCM (“good Christian man”). I’m not sure what she thinks these days. I have refused to attend church because I don’t want to feel as if I’m a hypocrite. That has severely hurt our social life, as lone women at church around here are subtly shunned and ignored until they give up. Most social life here (and in the south) seems to be based around the church. It’s one of the first things you are asked when you are introduced to someone around here. It’s like a theological “Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval.”

  14. As far as your second question, does not getting a talking to from your mom count? My mom is very religious. I try to give the idea of somewhat religious, but not hardcore like her. It took a while for us to come to a happy medium about my gayness.

    As far as the music director, as long as you talk to the people in your church, let them know that you aren’t a believer, but you want to direct their music for the sake of directing music, go ahead. The only stipulation is that if someone ever directly asks you if you’re a beliver, inform them that you’re not. (And prepare to get an evangelizing like you’ve never seen before. You’d be in their territory.)

    As long as you don’t do one thing and say another, you have an infinite monkey blessing. (granted, that and 50 cents will get you a gum ball, but, still). Just don’t be a hypocrite. That’s the fast track to losing credibility, respect, and probably friends.

  15. Have you ever pretended to be a believer in something to fulfill some need?

    I do it every damn day. I became an atheist after I got married, and my wife, family, and all my closest friends are devout Christians. It’s a helluva lot easier to just go with the flow. It’s not ideal, to be sure, and I hate the duplicity, but it’s better than the alternative. I tried to come out as an agnostic several years ago, and my wife took as it as some sort of judgment from God on her. We were both miserable for a week, at which point I simply ‘repented’. So far as she knows I’m a solid Christian, but in actuality, I’m a hardened atheist and skeptic now. I’m willing to live with the lies in order to keep the peace with my wife.

  16. @PrimevilKneivel: I don’t see how enjoying a music program does any of us a disservice.

    Because the purpose of the music is to promote the religion. Your participation is in service to that goal whether it is your intention or not.

    To put it another way, you see a parade go by waving banners to support some cause. Do you assume everyone in the parade is supporting that cause or do you assume they just like marching?

  17. Okay, how many of us are now calling round our local churches to see if they have a paintball program?

    “Have you ever pretended to be a believer in something to fulfill some need?”

    Funny you should ask. There was this really (*really*) attractive female Jehovah’s Witness I met in college and I had some needs that definitely needed fulfilling.

  18. @davew: Music isn’t the same as a cause or parade.

    If I listen to Warren G (lol, Regulators was on the radio earlier), does that mean I’m promoting the gangsta lifestyle? No, no it does not. It just means I like the beat and rap-style of gangsta rap.

    Same goes with a serial killer movie. My younger sister LOVES slasher-horror movies. But that doesn’t mean she’s promoting killing people. It just means she likes slasher-horror movies.

  19. @NoAstronomer: Going to church to be involved in a music program is one thing, but knowingly lying to a woman to get laid is really, really fucking creepy. You were only interested in her for her looks, and presented yourself to her as a completely different person to get laid. Skeeeevy.

  20. @davew: I think your view of organized religion is a strawman and deeply flawed. Many churches, synagogues and mosques have social activities that have no connection to religion. It’s just a community of people engaging in different activities.

  21. @marilove: If I listen to Warren G (lol, Regulators was on the radio earlier), does that mean I’m promoting the gangsta lifestyle?

    There is a difference between listening to something and performing it. If you were in the Regulators I would assume you were promoting a gangsta lifestyle.

    I don’t think that everyone who listens go gospel music is promoting religion. I just think they got their musical taste from a vastly different source than I did.

  22. @davew: Not really. I don’t really think Warren G promotes the gangsta lifestyle so much as he speaks honestly about it. Speaking honestly about something that exists is not the same thing as promoting it.

    And are actors in slasher flicks promoting killing people because they are acting (performing) in the movie? No, they certainly are not. I mean, Stephen King certainly doesn’t promote killing people, though he writes about it often.

  23. @PrimevilKneivel: Many churches, synagogues and mosques have social activities that have no connection to religion.

    We can disagree on this. I have participated in the Catholic church and Methodist. Everything they did was connected to religion even charity. More to the point all the music in both organizations was there specifically to support that religion. You weren’t going to hear any Brubeck or Monk during the mass.

  24. I know a bunch of atheists who like gospel music, and I know of no atheist gospel choirs. Seems like there’s only one solution if that’s what you’re into. Be upfront about your atheism to those in charge*, but don’t make a big deal out of it. I doubt anybody will ask if you’re a believer, how often does that come up at church?

    *God, mostly

  25. When we were going through the adoption process, our social worker asked what religion we were. Given that she was wearing a cross and had the power to naysay our application, I hedged: ‘Well, I was raised Episcopalian – my father’s a priest – and [the ex] was raised Jewish. Unitarian is a nice compromise, isn’t it?’ Note that I didn’t actually say we were Unitarian, but let her draw her own conclusions. I have no idea whether the Korean side cared or not.

    Another social worker criticised me for not taking my husband’s name – ‘It’ll look like your marriage isn’t stable!’ However, Korean women don’t take their husband’s names, so I doubt the authorities there would think that. Fortunately, her boss was a hyphenate and acceded to our request for a different social worker.

  26. @marilove: Not really. I don’t really think Warren G promotes the gangsta lifestyle so much as he speaks honestly about it.

    Sorry. I made an assumption about your example. I don’t know The Regulators. So let me say in general if you are part of a musical group that promotes X then you are promoting X. If you are listening to the music then you are not necessarily promoting X.

  27. This reminds me of a lecture I saw online a while ago. Can’t seem to find it now, though. The subject of the lecture was a group of ministers which had been selected for interview. The thing they had in common was that they’d all become atheists but had to keep quiet about it or risk losing their jobs, friends, pretty much everything they’d acquired in their adult life. They were essentially stuck in a job they didn’t believe in with no exit path.

    It was very interesting. I wish I could find it again. I thought it was Dan Dennett giving the lecture and it might have been a TED talk but I’m not certain of either.

  28. @davew: Warreng G is the actual performer; Regulators is just a song of his (from the 90s). Warran G regularly rapped about the gangsta lifestyle. That doesn’t mean he was PRMOTING the gangsta lifestyle. It just means he was writing honest music about a realistic life.

    “So let me say in general if you are part of a musical group that promotes X then you are promoting X.”

    You are making the assumption that performing music that has a certain subject matter means you’re promoting that subject matter/lifestyle/whatever.

    It certainly does not.

    Does that mean that Stephen King, who activley writes violent horror novels, is promoting killing people? Since he’s essentially doing the performing (in written word).

  29. @davew: and my wife’s synagogue has an electric band every service? so what?

    Your assertion that partaking in an activity that just happens to be organized by a church is a disservice to skeptics sounds too much like dogma to me. If you don’t like these activities that’s cool but don’t use the rest of the community to support your prejudice.

  30. I love to sing and have sung in musicals and choirs for 35 years. Make your self happy. I recently joined a non religious community choir that sings some gospel and historical church music. Good notes, good voices, and good times.

    @PrimevilKneivel: Robert Anton Wilson: “Belief is the death of intelligence. As soon as one believes a doctrine of any sort, or assumes certitude, one stops thinking about that aspect of existence.”

  31. @marilove: I gotta tell you, what No Astronomer did may seem “creepy” to you, but for a college-age person (man or woman) this is pretty common stuff. Ask your twenty-something friends if they would consider lying about their beliefs to get laid and I’ll bet most of them will answer with at least a “maybe.” This is particularly prevalent during the college years, tho I can say with some pride that it was not part of my “game”. Perhaps that’s why I didn’t get very much action during those years. ;-)

    OTOH, If I *currently* (as a forty-something man) did what he did to get laid that would be creepy as hell.

    As far as lying about belief in the case of the OP, I agree that coming clean in that situation would be best. It’s always better than living the lie. This way you’ll know where you stand and can move on from there. There’s music going on everywhere, and if you really love it, it will come thru, no matter what your beliefs.

  32. @marilove: Yeah, like @Garrison22 I’m going to give this one a bit of a pass. I’d say most of us at some point have pretended to be something we’re not in order to attract someone. I knew by asking the question I asked that some people would respond like that!

  33. @James Fox: And my saying, make yourself happy, I was not implying you should lie if that makes you happy. I’d let them know I’m not a believer but would like to keep singing in the choir if it’s okay with them.

  34. @marilove: i think you may be mistaken about the Catholic church in AZ, Catholic churches cannot be “led” by gays or women. It must be some other denomination. Maybe episcopal? They act a lot like catholics and are much more liberal (one of the first churches in the us to officially allow gay, women, and black priests)
    I come from the bible belt. A lot of friends are very religious and knew me before i admitted to myself that i didn’t believe in religion, and thus know me as a “Christian”. I haven’t really corrected this to many of them. I’m not flat out lying with my words, but really, i am lying to them. Fact is, i just don’t have the guts to tell them and risk my friendships turning into one giant “save lisa” game… but maybe i’m just not being honest enough with myself

  35. As the current chair of our church’s Personnel Committee (and a choir member), I would advise Pete to talk with the corresponding person in his church and make sure there are no “faith” requirements IF any of his music leadership is “for pay.” If not, or if if all his work is volunteer, I don’t think it’s anyone else’s business.

    As a choir member, I would far rather be directed by someone who loves and understands music (and who happens to be a non-believer), than by a musical hack who is theologically “pure”.

    I would estimate that I disagree theologically with at least half of what I sing on a weekly basis, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t still a lot of fun to sing!

  36. Several of my friends in college were musicians and played in brass ensembles for services at some of the local mega-churches which they did not attend. Apparently they paid pretty well. Poor college student who is open about their lack of interest in the church and is just doing it for income–OK with me.

    Volunteering your time to a program in an organization you don’t support–depends. If you are honest, you enjoy it, and your participation isn’t “supporting” something you’d rather not support–seems OK.

    Incidentally, the college musician friends stopped considering the mega-churches to be easy money when they started scheduling the musical numbers in such a way that suckered them into staying for the whole service.

  37. I don’t think it matters that you are an athiest and direct the church choir, although for your own piece of mind it may be easier if you found a non-religious outlet for your musical talent. You are obviously worried that you are not being true to yourself by directing the church choir. Might this anxiety compromise the enjoyment you get out of directing the choir?

  38. I’m not very good at pretending. Which means that sometimes I can barely avoid being a big jerk.

    I do close my eyes a lot during the touchy-feely-meditatey parts of yoga so they can’t see me rolling my eyes at “feeling the calming energy flowing to the tips of my fingers and across the blah blah blah.” I’m just there for the physical fitness.

  39. I don’t suppose there’s enough music-loving skeptics in your area to get a new ensemble together?

    Just a (possibly totally ridiculous) thought.

    It would be nice to find some outlets for banding together that didn’t involve mass quantities of alcohol.

  40. @marilove: Yeah, I was wondering about that too. Catholic churches don’t allow women to be priests, let alone pastors. So a lesbian pastor? Hmmm… Unless you all have a rogue Catholic Church down there. That would be pretty sweet, breakin’ all the RULES :)

  41. @Skept-artist: well, they are probably not ~official~, but rather an alternative church that bases their faith on Catholicism. :) But that proves my point even more. There are plenty of alternative churches. It was eye opening when I discovered that.

    Still an atheist, though :)

  42. @Malfeitor: COTW. You got a rare lol from me.

    Pete, does the position require you to be a “faith leader” or to promote the faith in any way other than through church music? If not, and if you don’t mind promoting the faith through church music, you’re probably OK. If you love the music but feel you can’t support the faith, then you should try to find some secular means of indulging your love of music, perhaps by volunteering to do the same thing you’re doing now but at a local community center instead.

    I’ve never pretended to be something I’m not to achieve a goal. This has frequently resulted in the path being much harder, or sometimes nonexistent, but it’s the path I continue to choose. This tendency has also given me a lot of practical experience with lateral thinking, as many times the obvious routes to a goal are closed off.

  43. @Garrison22: It just doesn’t sit right with me that lying about a very personal belief to someone to get laid, is somehow okay, while participating in a choir without being completely honest about your personal beliefs is somehow not okay.

    It’s still skeevy, in my opinion, and people make mistakes and I’m certainly not going to condemn him for something he did when he was in his 20s, but it’s still not a cool thing to do, in my opinion. *shrug* If someone did that to me, I’d be pissed, now and then.

  44. @James Fox: Yeah, that’s the thing — most people I know who participate in that stuff aren’t all that religious. Most just really enjoy it. There aren’t that many places where you can sing in a big ol’ choir that *aren’t* religious-based. What is wrong with participating in something

    I personally would probably be fairly honest with some members I could call friends, but there’s not really a need to put an “I DO NOT BELIEVE IN GOD!” sign on your head.

  45. Hi there, new commenter here..

    If you enjoy doing it, they appreciate your service, and neither of you is trying to preach your beliefs (or lack thereof) to one another, I see no reason why they should know. I’m a bagpiper, and I’ve been hired for a variety of church services – from weddings, to funerals to “kirking of the tartan” services. Most people who hire me wouldn’t have any idea that I’m an atheist, and I would hope that they wouldn’t care too much anyway. I show up, do my job, and bow my head respectfully at the appropriate times to fit in.

    It’s kind of the same approach that I take with my Christian friends – when they invite me to dinner, I stay quiet during grace, and we get on with the meal. They know I’m atheist, and they don’t care. If I were to interrupt their rituals, however, I’d probably be without some very dear friends..

  46. I think it would be good to sit down with someone and have a frank conversation about it.

    I know that there are people who participate in churches’ choirs without being members of that faith because they love the opportunity to get to participate in music as a grownup basically and there are not a lot of outlets for that in many places.

    I think if you come to an understanding with the person you talk to you don’t need to advertise it to anyone else and if someone comes to you with a god related issue that you should know who to send them too.

    I wouldn’t lie about it but I wouldn’t advertise it either. That is sort of the way I work with it. Most of the time it isn’t other peoples’ business. In this case it might be. But it isn’t like you need to wear an Atheist cap while doing your thing.

  47. I have several atheist-ish friends who sing in church choirs, purely because they enjoy singing the hymns and chorals. As a bandsman, I often play hymns and quite enjoy them. On occasion we’ve played for Christian funeral services for old bandsmen, and I view those as doing it out of respect for the person not the religion.

    And with regard to previous discussion saying it’s okay to listen to something, but being involved in making it is actively promoting the associated ideas, well what if no one believed in the ideas anymore, who would perform it for the rest of us to passively listen? Opera would have died if they insisted on real Greek Pagans playing the roles like Orpheus.

  48. The great biologist and essayist Stephen Jay Gould did not believe in god but loved to sing in choirs. He has written about it very powerfully and I recommend looking up those essays.

    Singing is excellent therapy for what ever ails you. It’s good for your brain and it’s good for your lungs.

    Personally, I cannot stomach the church crap it would take to sing in a church group and have given consideration to attempting to organize a secular singing group. May still do it.

  49. @marilove:

    but there’s not really a need to put an “I DO NOT BELIEVE IN GOD!” sign on your head.

    of course not, that’s what he tattoo is for.

    @James Fox:
    It’s weird, I’d noticed it quite a few times and thought it strange. Then one day I was standing on the corner with a neighbor when a service (or something) let out and he turned to me and asked “have you ever noticed…”

    I cut him off “yeah”

  50. You guys are great. I never expected such a response to that question. (Hi, I’m the Pete of the original Question.)
    A little clarification. I grew up in this Lutheran Church. My mother is a pastor (of a different church). I’m only recently coming to terms with my Atheism. I haven’t really opened up to anyone but my wife about it. (She’s also an atheist, so easy to talk to.)
    The music group in question is a 3/4th grade Handbell Choir. When I started directing this bell choir, I was still “a believer.” I really fell in love with directing. I don’t want to give it up, but I feel awkward, since I no longer go to church. I volunteer because I love it, and I’d be perfectly willing to continue volunteering in this position.
    I’ve planned on having a conversation with the main director and the pastor, when the next bell season starts up. (Not enough kids for an ensemble this year… start in the Fall.)
    In short, I’d like to, if they’ll let me.
    But, I’m concerned that I’d be compromising my ‘beliefs’ by going to church and encouraging a program that exists solely for the church.
    To those that say to go the secular route: the problem is that a set of handbells can cost several thousand dollars… and there’s just no demand for a 3/4th grade Community handbell Ensemble.
    Thanks for all the advice and discussion!

  51. I know a pretty significant number of professional musicians with paying church gigs that don’t believe/don’t care about the theology. A gig is a gig. I also know a number of amateur musicians that sing in a church choir because they really enjoy it, despite their lack of belief. In both cases, they simply enjoy the music and appreciate the chance to make it on a regular basis.

    There is also a cultural aspect to it, much as a secular Jew can still observe the Jewish traditions, one doesn’t have to accept the theology to participate in a cultural event.

  52. I would say that as long as you are honest with the people involved (including not just quietly failing to mention your beliefs or lackthereof) and they are fine with it, go for it. I was the worship leader of a church when I was at the losing end of the war of attrition with my faith and was open with my pastor about it. He was keen on me staying on for as long as I was willing and I cut out when I was no longer comfortable trying to lead the congregation in worship.

    I think you do have to consider how you feel about promoting religion, but I absolutely do not believe you should worry about how your actions somehow reflect on anyone or anything else.

  53. @larsonp: I can understand your concern there. While coming to grips with a change in belief systems, it’s easy to see things in “all or nothing” terms – I went through that myself. I’ll point out that, while the playlist may consist of music that supports the church, you’re also helping a bunch of 8/9-year-olds fall in love with music. I don’t think that’s a bad thing whatever one’s religious beliefs are.

  54. I haven’t really pretended to be a believer, but I have gone to many church services. Basically I feel I can’t honestly say I’m not a Luthern until I go to a service and see what it’s all about, and besides, maybe I wouldn’t mind worshipping Lex Luther (get it?)

    In all seriousness, I did run for local office last year and did get invited to many church events, while I went to be polite and meet the people, I never pretended to be anything I wasn’t and I did call ahead to make sure that the church didn’t mind having a heathen around. While many didn’t seem to care, they didn’t invite me because of my religious beliefs, I did have 1 or 2 uninvite me. But I’d rather have that happen rather than pretend to be something I’m not, Life’s too short to live a lie.

  55. When I started questioning my beliefs as a Catholic, I was a cantor. I led song in mass 1-3 times each month. Luckily, I went off to college, which provided a perfect breaking point to me. It was no longer awkward, since I was out of town.

    During the time I was questioning, I felt very uncomfortable cantoring. I think I would have stopped for that reason eventually. I still hear the songs in my head from time to time and it never fails to make me feel strange.

    Ultimately, remaining as part of a church music community is up to you, but you should probably start planning an escape route in case you decide you feel uncomfortable or in case someone in the group finds out that you are less religious than they would like.

  56. I remained a member of my Methodist church while I was a Wiccan, and then a pantheist, ad then an agnostic, and then an atheist, for about three years after the whole soul-searching began, because I am, first and foremost, a musician, and church gave me the opportunity to practice that every week for free, with usually good music, occasionally terrible music (but there is a special challenge in taking terrible music and turning it into something fit to listen to). I have never felt such happiness as being the soloist during the Easter service, with a fantastically composed piece and a captive audience who was bound to applaud no matter whether I sucked or not.

    I prefer to think that I didn’t suck.

  57. @larsonp: Sounds to me like you can absolutely do it with a clear conscience if you are clear about where you stand. If you explain your atheism, explain that you won’t lie about it but it won’t interfere with the music, you are on solid moral ground. You could also try to organise performances that are not part of the service, open to other faiths (*ahem* or NON faiths) if that helps. The bottom line is that you not directing the music at hre church will AT MOST stop the music program. It won’t, like, destroy the oligarchy, man, just as you doing it won’t suddenly flood the world with fundamentalists.

    As with all these sorts of moral connundra, I find that doing what seems right usually works, and not doing what makes you morally uncomfortable usually works just as well.

  58. Hello All. This is my first time posting.

    I am a non-believer, a musician, and have played several religious services. The first time was at a xtian rodeo sunday service. I had these business clients who were a family of 3 that did rodeos professionally. We became good friends. I admired their sense of individuality and somewhat “homesteading” lifestyle. It takes a certain personality to pull off being a real cowboy in the northeast. The wife sang and played guitar. They all liked my guitar playing, and I was actually flattered when they asked me to play the service. There was also the feeling of making a “caper” of sorts. you know….infiltrating a group when nobody knows my real identity. Well the experience was strange. I was raised catholic, and was unused to “testifying”. People couldn’t wait to have their turn at telling all about their spell of drinking and whoring, and how Christ brought them back on the straight and narrow. All I could think was, “So if you kept an even keel your whole life, then you don’t need religion. Right?” All in all, I felt like an imposter. Insincerity is not a good fit.

    A couple other times, I volunteered to play at the christmas eve mass in our local catholic church. My thinking was thus: I live in a town of only a few hundred people. We are grateful of things like wild game dinners, chicken BBQ’s and spaghetti dinners that are hosted by the 2 local churches. They are open to all and it is nice to have stuff going on in a town this small. I felt that offering to play music at the holiday service would be giving to my community. I really do like christmas music and I do get compliments on my playing. The talent pool in this area is also understandably limited.

    So I performed there 2 years in a row. I got some inquisitive looks from the choir members, because I don’t attend sunday services. But when I approached the pastor with my idea, and he asked what religion I was, I told him “fallen catholic”. And he took me up.

    My family was there to watch, and all in all the experience was pretty nice. 3 years ago the catholic church closed down because of a dwindling congregation. Go figure!

  59. I totally get this. I am in my second year teaching religious/Hebrew school at my synagogue. I didn’t apply for it–the religious school director called and offered me the job when I was unemployed, and I’ve struggled with the job ever since. I’ve always enjoyed the community and culture of the synagogue, and found services when I go to be a chance for meditation on ethical behavior. I like to teach foreign language and ethics to the kids. But I have a very tough time teaching theology to small children. Luckily the synagogue as a whole is very liberal–and the rabbi gave a sermon at the high holidays this year about the Big Bang and his own personal agnosticism, so I felt much better about my lack of religion as a Sunday school teacher.

  60. I choose not to talk about my (lack of) beliefs with my family. I come from a Catholic family who attends church every Sunday and all holy days of obligation. While growing up, I was told by my mom that the two most important gifts she could give to her children were a love for god and a love for education (50% isn’t bad, right?). My mother honestly believes that if I don’t believe in a god it means I will burn in hell for all eternity. I know how much it would hurt her to believe that. So while I challenge her beliefs on a variety of topics- transubstantiation has been a big discussion- I don’t talk frankly about being an atheist.

    That all seemed to work pretty well until I started planning my wedding. Both the mr. and I are Catholics-turned-atheists. Both of us have parents who really care about the religion. We agreed to have a catholic wedding for the sake of our family- but it has required a lot of lying and half truths. Truthfully, I don’t feel great about it, but I know that the day would not be complete for our parents without the church service. And since I really believe that a wedding is as much about uniting two families as it is about uniting two people, I’m willing to do this for our families. It’s still been one of the hardest decisions I’ve ever had to make.

  61. To the original question – I’d start a new group. Doesn’t take a churchy to sing, and there are a lot of creative secular songs I’d consider “gospelesque.”

  62. @Rebel 16: I have to agree with Rebel 16 – not leading the church handbell orchestra will only result in a bunch of kids who are not benefiting from a music education. I still don’t think the church has to know about your lack of belief, but if they question you on it, be honest and let them know that you’re in it for the love of the music and the kids.

  63. here_fishy –

    The problem I have with not telling the church, is that there is generally an assumption of acceptance when one takes a leadership position in a church. I suppose this may not be the same way in some churches, but in churches I have been a part of even small leadership positions were considered positions of trust and said trust includes the assumption that one follows relatively closely the dogma of the church.

  64. I don’t really understand the people that are keeping their lack of belief a secret – and have to lie, dissemble, etc., to keep it from coming out. It just seems that it’d be easier to just come out with it. At least, that’s my personal experience. I live in Jacksonville (it’s not really an atheist stronghold), and I was raised in the Assemblies of God (fundamentalist pentecostal evangelical), and was still a member until my mid-30’s, when I came to the conclusion that I didn’t believe anymore (side-effect of listening to SGU, & other skeptical podcasts). I didn’t go to the church and stand in the lobby with a sign, but I’ve let my family and friends know, I’ve updated my FB ‘religion’ status, and there haven’t been any significant problems. There’s been one guy that wanted to argue evolution (he’s a true YEC), but not much otherwise. Of course, my family, and other people that are still Christians *do* believe that God’s rules condemn me to hell, but they don’t think that I’m a bad person – that’s just how the system works, according to their beliefs, and they can’t do anything about it.

    As far as choosing to keep it secret goes, what happens after the marriage? If two people are nominally Catholic, but secretly atheist, have kids, then how do you deal with Grandma taking them to church, expecting the sprog to get baptized, etc.? I mean, the truth has to come out sometime.

    Anyway, I think maybe we atheists should perhaps give other people the opportunity to act like grown-ups – maybe you’d be surprised by the results.

  65. @sowellfan: We’ve thought a lot about what to do in the event of children. We both survived Catholic school for either 9 years (me) or 15 years (him) and we actually came out thinking more critically because of it. We feel stronger in our convictions because we had the opportunity to think about and question our beliefs. So we feel ok with our children getting some xtian teachings- as long as we can discuss it logically after their “lessons”. I think it can only help to have multiple points of view.

    In truth, I think my parents have a pretty good idea that we’ve rejected religion- they just believe we’ll come back to it someday. They avoid the topic more than I do- mostly because they know I’d answer honestly if asked. We’ve established a nice “don’t ask, don’t tell” equilibrium. And we all know how well don’t ask don’t tell has served us in the military!

  66. Nice to see the mention of Unitarian Universalism. I was thinking of joining the music group at the UU church where I’m a member, but I seem to think the try-outs conflicted with a meeting of Drinking Skeptically.


    Anyway, as a long time UU from a fairly atheistic congregation I’d always been encouraged to draw my own conclusions about religious questions, so for the most part I never had to hide my beliefs. As a former seminarian who was at one time planning on going into full-time UU ministry, there were times where I toned down my message from the pulpit to be a little more diplomatic.
    I also used to officiate at weddings quite regularly and sometimes the couple would want to include some fairly religious stuff. I’d do this with no problem, having told them at the beginning that I wouldn’t pressure them to take any particular theological point of view, that the ceremony was about their beliefs and what they felt would make it meaningful for them, and that I would be happy to include whatever they’d like, regardless of my own beliefs.

    So, I’ll chime in with the chorus and cast another vote for being honest and if that’s a problem for that church, join up with the UUs.

  67. @larsonp: Ah, well, if it’s handbells we’re talking, then the issue of lyrics is no problem. I see your point.

    When I was a church goer, one of the secretaries was a non-believer, but she loved being on the edge of an organization that was helping people in the neighborhood, and employed by some very decent people for a living wage. What’s not to like?

    I’m sure there would be other situations where you would be more conflicted. Just be up front about your POV and work it out honestly.

    Note of warning about UUs – I’ve heard it said that they are lousy hymn singers because they have to read ahead in the lyrics to see if they agree with the theology.

  68. Hi
    I have a similar conundrum. I manage a church football (i.e. soccer) team – which I got involved in while I still had a faith. I am now an atheist. At the start of each game, I still have to lead a short prayer.

    I feel very uneasy but I simply have to live with it – the pleasure I get from the football, and the fact that it’s a key source of healthy exercise, means that I live with this compromise. I try to make up for it by posting more sceptical viewpoints on as many woo newspaper articles as I possibly can!

  69. @marilove

    Sorry for not replying earlier, been busy for a bit.

    I feel I should mention at this point that I am an utterly transparent person and that not only did I not get laid I didn’t even get a date.

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