Jesus the Existentialist: What I learned from atheists while going to church

Smart Hymn21 Generosity - Jesus the Existentialist: What I learned from atheists while going to churchI have a confession to make. (Not surprising, since Catholics seem to be pretty good at spilling our guts all over the confessional room floor.) This Sunday was a lesson in empathy for me, and it came in a very odd way. I learned to have empathy for others and listen to my conscience from an unlikely source: Atheists and lapsed Catholics.

For the last several months, our pastor has been throwing the idea out among the parishioners that we needed to build a new church hall. We have a hall. It was built 40 years ago but it is in good shape with high, vaulted ceilings that allow plenty of natural sunlight from the encased skylights. It isn’t the fanciest, but it serves the purpose. Few people complained about the hall.

For the last four Sundays, Father has been prepping us for a very large capital campaign. The goal of the campaign is roughly $4 million over the course of three years, effectively doubling our weekly tithe. This, in addition to the diocese stewardship campaign, represents a very large economic contribution of $5000 per family per year. In a faith community where two children per family is deemed acceptable, this might be a possibility. Our parish has several families with four or more children. In an area where homes exceed $400,000 or more as a median price, and average rent is between $1800 and $2500 per month, it does not leave a lot of wiggle room for a struggling family. An additional $500 per month may represent the only money a family has for the unexpected events such as a car breakdown or a hospital stay.

I sat in church, listening to Father link another Gospel reading to his appeal for money. This Sunday, I looked up the reading and found it was to be John 2:13-25, the story of Jesus blowing his cool and toppling moneychangers that were exploiting the people who worship in the temple for more money. How is Father going to reconcile this Gospel with his appeal? I thought. This ought to be interesting. As I expected, Father decided to substitute the Gospel reading with a different one, conveniently, on a day when this is allowed for other purposes. As Father recounted the story of the Samaritan woman at the well with Jesus, I began to fume. This Gospel was all about how Jesus broke with cultural norms to embrace the personhood of those who were rejected by society and culture, such as women and Samaritans. How dare he exploit the situation just so he could talk about building a fancy new hall while some parishioners struggle to make ends meet?

As I grew angry, I noticed my children writing all over the special envelopes Father had printed to gain financial commitments from every parishioner. They were large and fancy. My kids thought they were specially placed with pencils this week, just for their entertainment. How apropos! I thought. Kids always seem to cut right through the minutia to zero in on the real theme. I decided to join them this time, and picked up one of their previously scribbled etchings to write a few notes of my own.

I jotted down a few of the phrases I heard Father say. “We should be comfortable in church. If we are not, there is something wrong.” Truer words have never been spoken, but not in the way he was meaning them. “The temple is place of comfort and commitment which embraces people and where they can gather.” “The temple is an extension of Jesus’ role in this world.” “The reason why I am doing this is because we want to do this together.” The last sentence screamed at me. I am doing this because WE want to do this together? Granted, Father was not born or raised in the U.S., but this dramatic Freudian slip cannot be explained by an English-as-a-second-language faux pas. Was Father saying he wanted us to join him in his desire to have a new building, or was he trying to say he was using the building project to join us closer as a community? Or was there a subliminal meaning I was to decode?

I jotted down what I was feeling. “Anger, sadness, hostility, resentfulness, bitterness, lonely, unwanted,” these are all foreign emotions to my normal church attendance emotion of peaceful, contented, or sometimes, bored. Lost in thought (thankfully), I looked again at the words I wrote. These may be the emotions that people feel right before they jettison out of the Catholic Church, a community or a family. Feeling isolated, separated, and unworthy are all the emotions that are commonly cited by people who feel rejected. I felt that rejection in that moment, as though the inability to contribute $5000 per year made me less of a good Catholic than the average atheist.

I felt my throat well up and I fought the tears back. How many people feel this way before they walk out the Church doors, never to return? How many people feel this rejection daily by those around them for not being pretty enough, smart enough, wealthy enough or part of their “crowd”? How many atheists feel these emotions daily because they feel they cannot relate to those who espouse religion as a banner of life? According to Hunsberger and Altemeyer (2006), the feelings of loneliness, isolation, and rejection are common, especially among those who leave an organized religion. More importantly, how many people feel the same way I do, right now, in this church?

I wanted to walk out and not return to this parish. I wanted to judge the whole parish for the actions of one man. I wanted to punish the whole community for this offensive appeal for materialism, masked as “building for future generations.” The previous generation built the hall we have now with that very same intent. How do they feel about hearing that it is not good enough for us? Are we grateful for their efforts, or simply view them as not being up to our standards? How many times had I heard an atheist accuse the Catholic Church of corruption and greed? Was I not also making this same charge? Perhaps the atheists were more honest than I had been.

It struck me that this is exactly the theme of what Father was saying, whether he knew it or not. I was not comfortable, but was that really a bad thing? If I am not comfortable, does that mean something is wrong, or is it meant to inspire me to do what is right? If an atheist has to continually confront the possible impossibility of real atheism, based on Science 2.0 blog, Scientists discover that atheists might not exist, and that’s not a joke (Vittachi, 2014) then perhaps I can challenge my perception that church must always be comfortable. Atheists often seek truth above everything else, and truth is supposed to set us free, even if it means we must discard previous expectations. The existentialist in me emerged to make meaning of this situation. Comfort, it would seem, is the enemy in this situation.

It is comfortable for me to live in a parish where everyone I know agrees with me. However, I won’t grow much as a person if I am content. I am pretty sure this was the theme of the Gospel as well. Yes, we can keep the status quo and go along with what everyone else thinks, but does that help us grow as human beings? More importantly, are we following the example set by Jesus? I thought of a few friends who struggled with their belief, or non-belief, in God. When faced their questions, I felt threatened, much like I did when Father asked for more money. Was I demonstrating belief, or demonstrating doubt? Did I help them, or hurt them?

If I was uncomfortable, perhaps it had to do with saying No. I have always struggled to say No when asked to do anything. Why should now be different? Perhaps this was a new opportunity for me to learn to set a boundary and keep it, while accepting Father for who he is. Atheists must do this all the time. If an atheist, who is simply following his conscience, says No to a gross injustice, why can’t I? The greater question, as I left the church, could I be an extension of the Church by embracing those who do not agree with me and love them anyway?

As we left church, I saw a neighbor. This was her first time back to church in years. I stopped and hugged her, welcoming her back while apologizing for the embarrassing appeal for money during the homily. “Oh that? I wasn’t really listening to be honest,” she said. I laughed and realized that God works like that. If He wants you to hear something, He will make sure you listen. If not, no harm, no foul. However, if I had left the church and stormed out (like I wanted to do,) what message would that send to my friend, or any other person struggling with their faith in that moment? My actions were as important as Father’s, maybe more.

First, I was an externalization of an internal experience. My life is an example to others, and so are my actions. I cannot separate my actions from my person any more than Father can connect an appeal for a luxurious new hall with the Gospels. If I act in a way that appears inconsistent with my words, it does not matter if I meant well. Others perceive the actions just as they appear. My intentions are useless, in contrast to my actions, regardless of how I rationalize them.

Second, just because an idea lacks appeal does not mean the whole idea is wrong. Being generous to others is a good thing. Doing it without expectation in return is a very good thing. It demonstrates love in a way nothing else can. Whether donating to a worthy cause or paying it forward at the Bay Bridge toll booth for the car behind you, just because your conscience cannot accept the cause, do not abandon the action. Go find a new cause. Father was not wrong in what he was saying. He was just wrong in assuming his cause was the most worthy to us. Having a comfortable hall is not as important as providing shelter for the homeless population or food for the hungry. Generosity is good.

On the way home, we saw a homeless family standing at the entrance of the church parking lot. They had a sign, “Please help. Homeless. Need food.” In that moment, I realized what I needed to do. It was important to contribute to those who need help, in whatever way my family could. It didn’t matter if it was for a church building, or a homeless family, or to the local food bank. The important thing was that I listen to my conscience and act with love. If an atheist can do this every day, simply to be a good human being, so could I.

Rather than seeking to gain something from the generosity, maybe it should be enough that I am learning to be uncomfortable. If an atheist can tolerate being uncomfortable during family dinners at Christmas and Easter, I can tolerate being uncomfortable with donating to this homeless family without judging them. Atheists don’t usually judge me. I can learn this from them. If all Catholics acted this way, more atheists might find common ground with us and consider hanging around longer at church (National Catholic Reporter, 2013). Perhaps then, we might have the opportunity to actually be an extension of the man who created new boundaries and spoke to a Samaritan woman, even though his buddies wanted him to conform to the status quo.

Hunsburger, B. E., & Altemeyer, B. (2006). Atheists: A groundbreaking study of America’s non-believers. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books.

National Catholic Reporter. (2013, June 7). Atheists praise pope’s remarks. National Catholic Reporter, 17(3), p. 49. Retrieved from

Vittachi, N. (2014, July 6). Scientists discover that atheists might not exist, and that’s not a joke. Retrieved from Science 2.0:…

— Maria Taheny

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