Religion, what is it good for?

As Donald Trump continues to push for states to re-open their churches, even as religious gatherings in houses of worship have been linked to coronavirus outbreaks, I began to think about what religion is actually good for — a lessen I learned earlier this year when my kid told me she wanted to “try out church” for the first time.

My wife and I are not religious, I am agnostic and she is an atheist. I grew up in a very Italian-Irish Catholic family, and she in a culturally Jewish family, so either in spite of, or because of, we are both anti-organized religion. When our kid was born we decided we would not dictate whether she could or could not believe in a religion, we simply told her she could decide what she would like to believe when she was older. Older came this past January, about 2.5 months before the covid-19 pandemic, when she was 14 years old.

When she began mentioning that she wanted to try out church we were perplexed but supportive. She told us she was going to ask one of her friends if she could go with their family to their church one Sunday. She had only ever been to church one other time and it was with those same friends. As a parent, I always want to be supportive of my kid’s decisions (within reason), regardless of my personal beliefs, so I offered to take her, after all, I figured a little more spirituality in my life wouldn’t be the worst thing either.

Since elementary school I have only ever voluntarily stepped into a church for either weddings or funerals, I’ve never gone just for a Sunday mass. I had spent my entire life trying to get away from organized religion, only to have my social activist kid lead me back there.

As a child of a very Catholic family I was relegated to a Catholic elementary school where I would have to go to mass at least once a week on Sundays and periodically during the school week. Nuns roamed the halls and taught us topics like math, english and of course, religion. From that young age though I never really believed in the stories I was told in religion class or during mass. I questioned my religion teachers, my parents, and rebelled against organized religion. Finally after years of fighting, my parents relented and I parted ways with the catholic church — and organized religion in general.

My dislike of organized religion had mostly to do with exclusionary practices of the congregations, and their interpretations of the teachings, more than the religion itself. As a believer in social equity and justice from a young age, I had a problem with condemning people based on text in a book. Over the history of the world a lot of violence and hate is due to religious followers telling people what is “right” and what is “wrong”; who is “right” and who is “wrong”. I’ve encountered many a protest, and had many a heated conversation with family members, based on the interpretations of their religious doctrines.

With all that in mind, I was not going to walk the kid — or me — into just any church, I wanted to make sure its values were similar to ours, just with an added flavor of religion. I asked around and a friend whom I trust recommended the Old First Reformed United Church of Christ in Philadelphia’s Old City neighborhood. The Old First is one of the earliest congregations in Philadelphia, celebrating its 300th year anniversary in 2027. For me, going to a church with that much history in the city I feel so deeply connected to, made the experience a little easier.

So, on a beautiful spring-like January morning with my kid in hand, we went to church. Walking into the church we were both quite nervous — neither of us really knew what to expect. As soon as we walked in we were greeted by a diverse group of community members who immediately spotted two “newbies”, who I am certain looked like a pair of deer in headlights. They were kind and welcoming and immediately introduced the kid to other young people her age who had been members of the church for years.

As we walked into the nave and sat down I had a rush of anxiety sweep over me, and I literally flashed back to sitting in my elementary school church pews, talking with a priest as he told me that if I missed mass one more time I would go to hell; I think I was in 6th grade at the time. It immediately reminded me why I had stayed away for so long. But then as if on cue, the kid pointed out a passage in the Old First brochure; we read this statement together:

“At Old First, we know that people don’t come in just one size, shape, color or style. Instead, each is unique. Our faith teaches that people reflect different aspects of thee image of God: the female image, the male image, the black image, the white image, the gay image, the straight image, the youthful image, the elderly image, the immigrant image, the poor image, the otherly-abled image, and on and on…As proud members of the United Church of Christ, we celebrate our differences: each a precious, irreplaceable reflection of God.”

And with that, we both began to relax a little and fully open up to the church she had come to try out. That sentiment of inclusion was not just on the brochure though but was infused in the sermon the priest gave, in the prayers of the people who shared, and in the diversity of congregates who attended and participated in the service.

After a long 2-hours, there was pre- and post-gaming as well as the mass, we headed back out to that spring-like day to discuss what we had just experienced. For me, outside of what seemed like a true commitment to social justice, equality, and kindness, I just couldn’t get past all of the religion, the constant readings and references to Jesus Christ and God, which I realize is appropriate in a church service, but just didn’t sit right with me, mostly because I just don’t believe it to be true. From the kid’s perspective, she really enjoyed the social justice part of the Old First community as well, and said she wanted to go back, though we haven’t yet. She is not sure if she believes the religion part of it either, but that is her path to decide.

Churches are more than the structures where believers congregate, they are the community that they build, and the values they share. Ultimately not all churches and religions are created equal — yes they all are built around community, but what type of community they build is an important consideration. First United had built an inclusive community centered around social justice and Jesus. If the kid does want to ever go back (once it is safe to do so — and only then) I will continue to go back with her, not as a believer, but as a human, and a parent, supporting her, and focusing on that community aspect of the church, because for her — and many others — that is what religion is truly good for.

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Marion Leary

Marion Leary

Science geek. Passionate abt Philly, resuscitation, social media, scicomm, innovation, art, & helping others. http://marionleary.strikingly.com