As I am studying religion - its history, psychology, philosophy, etc. - I wondered, should I at least go to a church service just as an observer, especially if I live next to one? What would it be like? That is not an appealing thought on one level, but is a good question, nonetheless. Why are people attracted to it? How would I, from my standpoint, react to it? I have not been to mass in - I don’t know - 28 years or more, and I decided that as an educated, rational adult I should go just to observe out of curiosity. What can I learn from going to church - not about God, but about believers in God?
As a little kid I went to mass sometimes with my friend, whose mother was a regular churchgoer. I was raised Catholic, but got off lightly - just having to attend Sunday school and do communion was the extent of it for me. I have some memories of what mass was like and how it bored me. What would I think of mass now as an educated, rational, independent-minded, atheist adult - distant, fuzzy memories and fuzzy memories of my reaction to it, aside?
There is a Catholic church and school right next to the apartment complex I live in and every Sunday morning its sizable parking lot is packed with cars that even overflow out to nearby streets. What is the appeal? A charismatic priest who gives great sermons? What? As best I can remember, mass is dull.
I walked over for the 9:30 service. I made it clear in my mind that I will not kneel to pray, stand to sing, or anything else. I will just sit politely and watch and listen. I am going as an observer, not as a participant.
I went in and as I was walking across the lobby, a lady ahead of me entered the room of worship through the big wood doors and reached her finger into the holy water holder on the wall - and my forgotten childhood memories of seeing people do that suddenly came to the fore of my mind. “Oh wow, I forgot about that (jaw drops)…it’s ridiculous!” Then I looked at her and was dumbfounded by her superstitious silliness. “You actually believe putting your finger in the water is significant?” I asked her in my mind. That foolish little action instantly and powerfully made it clear to me what a different world I entered. My emotional state darkened. The thought "just leave" crossed my mind but I resolved to proceed in to this remnant of the Dark Ages.
I walked in and I made a left to the end of the pews and went a few rows and sat down. Then I remembered the “peace be with you” hand-shaking thing they do. I do not object to that in itself because it is not appealing to the supernatural. Problem is, I would feel like a phony doing it because I am not here to participate - period. Simple solution to this problem: sit where there is nobody with arm's reach!
More people filed in and some seated themselves around me here and there, but some of them in the pews in front of me blocked my view of the altar and the green-cloaked wizard when the mass began. Attendance was modest and consisted of mostly old folks (an indication that it is early in the morning). I looked next to me and in the middle of my pew was nobody. And nobody in the pews in front of and behind it, so I slid down to see better - and solve the matter of how to avoid the “peace to you” hand-shaking!
So the mass started with all rising to pray and/or sing - except me. Then there more prayers and bible-snippet-quoting as they are going through their rituals.
I was primarily waiting for the green-cloaked wizard to deliver a how-important-God-is-for-one’s-life sermon so I could critique it - as an educated, philosophical-minded adult. In other words, I wanted to hear what was the what, how, and why of him telling his faithful to believe what they do.
Finally he starts talking and it seems like this might be what I have been forcing myself to patiently wait for, so I ratchet up my attention a bit. He talks about how his friend saw the opening Olympic ceremony in China and how magnificent it was and the only other sight he beheld he can compare its magnificence to was the Grand Canyon. Okay, I think, this might be some kind of analogy he is going to make about beholding God’s or Big J’s magnificence. He then shifted his talk back to the Bible or something - I forget what exactly - and what, if anything, the two subjects had to do with each other was completely lost on me. Needless to say, I was hardly impressed.
Next a woman spends several minutes talking about her group’s Catholic charity work in South America, and after that, more rituals of praying, singing, Bible-reading, communion, and somewhere in there, passing the collection baskets.
I did not wear my watch so I had no sense of time during this boring ordeal, but by the nature of the rituals I sensed they were wrapping up mass. While I waited for this to end I watched the flock do what they do and I thought about what I experienced - and what they experienced.
First off, there was virtually no substance to the mass, that paltry substance being the inane “morals of the story” from their few brief Bible readings.What was the most salient about aspect of the mass is its psychological nature. The faithful flock was there to worship their God so they were in a suggestible frame of mind. As mass proceeds they become more suggestible by relaxing (part of being bored), by praying (which is really self-suggestion), by monotonous singing, by losing sense of oneself in the group, etc.
While I was watching them partake in their final rituals I was aware of what, generally speaking, was happening psychologically: they created a groupthink delusion that they were “close to God” or however one wants to phrase it.
I found it to be very disturbing, surreal - and pathetic. They seemed alien to me. As mass ended, I had an intense sense of urgency to get away from these delusional fools. I was maybe the third person out the door. “Put distance between them and me,” I thought, “and fast.” I thought that seriously, not sarcastically.
Stepping outside was such a relief, but the impact of what I experienced was still with me. It made me so glad to be an atheist, to have my mind be mine.
Back in the real world I thought about what happened in the church. Those people go there every Sunday and do their silly, meaningless rituals while finding it all to be somehow serious and spiritual - and they get all dressed up for it, to boot! What going to mass amounts to is going to the priest and his assistants, allowing them to plant their suggestions in one's mind, and then paying them for it. When next week comes, go back for more. It is cooperation with one's mind controllers. That is the reality of what mass is, and if I tried expining any of that to them... well, nevermind.
That is what I learned in church - as an educated, rational, adult.