If the church you attend/attended is/was anything like mine, the mantra “Bring your bible, notepad, pen and a friend” would have been repeated to you so many times that it’s going to stay with you until your dying day.

Those who managed to fulfil this edict were celebrated by the leadership team each week as though they were the best performing salesman at an internet security company. Walking said friend “down the front” at the end of the service to commit their life to Jesus was akin to winning Goldman Sachs as a client. This makes sense as, for those who hold the Christian belief, nothing can be more important than the security of a soul’s eternity in heaven.

It gets to the point though where you feel a certain sense of shame turning up without one of these items. You could be forgiven for forgetting a pen, and new friends can be hard to come by on a weekly basis, but your Bible and your notepad should be with you everywhere you go.

So, what happens when a non-believer attends church out of respect for a friend or family member, without their Bible, notepad and pen?

When you are the one that’s the “friend”?

I recently was that friend, and the lens through which I now see the world casts an entirely different light on what I once saw and heard during church. I thought it would be interesting to share, so without further ado, here are my (iPhone) notes:

The congregation stands. The band plays the Hillsong United song titled “Here Now”

I’m attentive to the lyrics now like I never was before. Oddly, I’ve always been a lyrics person, my favourite songs are usually those whose lyrics I find clever, or which resonate with me, but not when it came church music. I used to try to get lost in the praise and worship by focussing on the baseline, trying to feel something by employing some kind of musicology… but these days I cannot help but think about it critically. I guess that’s where your pendulum swings when you feel like you’ve had the wool pulled over your eyes for years.

I read the line: “Faith makes a fool of what makes sense. But grace found my heart where logic ends” and all I can think is “So, when it comes to God, we don’t need logic? Making sense isn’t important?” Someone with a religious worldview requires scientific truth with regards to just about everything in life, just as someone with a secular worldview does. When it comes to God however, this idea of scientific truth goes out the window and is replaced with faith, and this line, like so many things, I just can’t reconcile.

I don’t sing, and probably stand poker straight in my own private and silent protest.

The sermon begins and the pastor says: “It’s easier to tear something down than to build it up. Cynics just tear down, so be a builder.”

I agree with this. This is sound advice. Let’s assume some Christians really do see atheists as cynics who only indulge in anger and love to argue, poke fun at and essentially tear down a Christian’s faith – they wouldn’t be wrong in all cases. I think this comes, as many things do, from a lack of understanding and nuance.

I certainly had the opinion as a Christian that my worldview, morals and life in general were superior to the faithless around me, but this self-centredness isn’t a Christian trait, nor a non-Christian trait. It’s just a human trait, and neither Christianity nor atheism predict a person’s personality.

I’m sure I could still find ways to justify myself as morally superior now, (we all have the human flaw of thinking we are in the right most of the time) but the one crucial difference that my change in worldview has given me is certainty, or rather, lack-of.

I no longer believe that I, of the 7.5 billion people on earth, have the correct view of life.

I’m just trying to gather as much information as I can, to keep finding better ways to do better, foster values which aren’t beyond critique or improvement and can be guided by rationality.

In reality atheism, quite simply, is just not believing that there is a God.

Maybe what the non-believers need to do is better articulate the narrative of what life without God is really like, as it is so much more than what is purported by some Christians.

[“Some christians”: here pertaining to Tim Keller’s summary of a non-religious life; “Secularism seems to flatten and reduce life so that all our getting and spending amounts to nothing more than fidgeting while we wait for death.” … um, yeah …]

The narrative that isn’t told as often is that from the atheistic perspective, in my experience, the world opens up to you – questioning and curiosity are encouraged, an appreciation for the magic of reality and the universe at large takes over you. Kindness for the sake of human flourishing is seen as a beautiful thing and freedom of thought and self-empowerment is fostered. I’d like us to speak more about the joy and freedom of it, the good things that are being done and can be done as humanity, for humanity and for the world, with no ulterior motive. This is not to say Christianity is altogether wrong, many secular people will be the first to admit that we have much to learn from religious groups, like the community environment that churches do so well.

The topic the preacher is speaking on is “taste and see”. He begins by paraphrasing John 1:18 “You cannot see God and no one ever has.”

Yet, doesn’t the Bible say elsewhere that Jesus is God? This reasoning doesn’t appeal to me because it’s illogical (I know we’ve just been singing about how “faith makes a fool of what makes sense” but I couldn’t engage with that) – We’ve been told Jesus is God’s son, but we’ve also been told that the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are one, but also that no one can see God, but that Jesus is God, and people have seen Jesus …

[I’ve since looked at a translation of the “direct” biblical quote, which is “No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in closest relationship with the Father, has made him known.”]

John 14:9 “Jesus said to him: ”Even after I have been with you men for such a long time, Philip, have you not come to know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father also. How is it you say, ‘Show us the Father’?”

Wait, what? So now we can see him, okay. I jumped the gun.
I’m also the only person in this congregation who seems to have a problem with this.

The Pastor rhetorically asks; “How do we experience God with our five senses?” And answers his own question by stating that “There are people in the Bible who did meet Jesus, and we have their accounts of it written here.”

Mmm yes, let’s listen to the profusely translated storytelling of 3500-year-old borrowed & regurgitated folktales and believe the stories which were passed on by oral tradition for years before they were recorded in writing. Ever heard of Chinese whispers? Or chain of custody?

“It’s all to do with Jesus.” He says. “Taste, touch, hear, see, smell.”
The Pastor says we can [or people did] literally experience Jesus in these five ways;

Touch: “The woman with the issue of blood touched Jesus and he felt power leave him. We lose sensitivity/developing calluses because the world is hard, and God is the oil to that hardness.”

Sure so, as the fable goes, she touched him and viola. So, again, we just take their word for it. This “touch” does not translate into a means of accessing Jesus’ power today.

Taste: “Read the Word of God. Be hungry for God and starve the things that are a distraction from God.”

Because at some point in the Bible, the Bible or the “Word of God” is referenced as bread?

Therefore reading = tasting, got it.

The part about starving things that are a distraction from God is troubling to me because this is the definition of instilling confirmation or selection bias, which is something I believe we should actively discourage, or in the very least, be aware of.

I don’t know how such “teaching” can be defended. Shouldn’t we try to learn as much about the many cognitive biases we’ve evolved to fall prey to? Shouldn’t we try to understand ourselves better? Our minds are so complex that we will naturally continue to fail here and there, but minimising these failures ought to be an objective if we want to continue to make progress as human beings.

Sight: “Lift up your eyes”.

Basically, it’s meditation. He’s saying: “Don’t dwell on your issues, dwell on God.” I can truck with this, it’s a good idea not to dwell on your issues, regardless of what you’re meditating on. So I can imagine that heeding this advice works as well as the average meditation in giving you clarity and peace of mind.

Hear: “That still small voice.”

Aka your thoughts. I sit here thinking that all my thoughts bubble up from the unplumbed depths of my consciousness, created by memory and goaded by present and future experience. I assume most people in this room think much the same thing, but some thoughts, I suppose the particularly good ones, they attribute to God. This touches on the issues with self-confidence and guilt which I have experienced as part of religious trauma syndrome.

Smell: “The words stench, aroma and fragrance are the three Biblical ways to describe smells. The Bible describes prayer as the incense that goes up to heaven.”

So, all that really tells me is that (according to the Bible) God can smell our prayers? This doesn’t mean we can smell him or his answers to our prayers, so this just sounds like a poorly thought out argument. Not a successful attempt at twisting the words of the Bible to use them as an example of how us humans can experience God through smell.

Apparently you either produce the stench of death or carry the fragrance of God with you. Gross. I must smell awful to these people.

Those are some of my notes for this sermon. Granted, I took everything quite literally, but this is how I see things now – how interesting it would be to compare my notes from this day with the notes of the general, “hungry”, congregation. Or even, to compare them with notes I would have written if listening to the same sermon years ago.

I’ve often said that in my years as a Christian I was geared up like a racehorse, with blinkers over my eyes to avoid any distraction from the “narrow way” (Matthew 7:13-14). I deliberately quashed my interest in paleontology and the sciences, my longest standing passions, because they didn’t fit in the God Box. I quashed my curiosity and critical thinking, I quashed my natural interests and desires, created complexes, fears, guilt and shame that need not have ever existed!

All of this as an attempt, out of fear, to be able to enter through this narrow way.

If that wasn’t difficult enough, there’s the bonus seed of doubt (affectionately known as the “stacks on” Christian guilt effect) that even if you think you’re doing everything right, you might have the wrong end of the stick; “Lord, are only a few people going to be saved?” He said to them. Strive to enter through the narrow door. For many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able. When once the master of the house has risen and shut the door, and you begin to stand outside and to knock at the door, saying, ‘Lord, open to us,’ then he will answer you, ‘I do not know where you come from.’” – Luke 13:23-25.

At the end of the service, with a few shifty smiles and as little eye contact as possible, I retired to the tea and coffee stand to wait for my friend to announce our departure.

Almost marvelling at how much a person can change, trying to remember sermons I’d heard in the past and wondering, if could time travel, would I find just as many issues with those messages as I did with this one? Ironically, this was probably the time I had paid the most and closest attention to the message being delivered.

That night I looked over notes I’d taken in church years ago (incidentally, not an activity I’d recommend unless you’re feeling particularly full of gumption in the Kate Winslet, ‘The Holiday’ sense of the word) and to say it was shocking is not an overstatement. Notes I had fastidiously copied down, prayers that I’d written in desperation, lyrics I had repeated like mantras, I could hardly believe the person who wrote those things was me. I actually felt winded when I read certain sentences. I shook my head, not regretting it, but feeling immensely glad for my new perspective.