The Truth About Atheism

Experts muse on the freedom to not believe, teaching kids morality, why atheism cannot replace religion, and more.

Which Religions Are Welcoming to Singles? Part I: Introduction

Too many singles feel devalued by their religions.

I'm mad at religion. I don't mean that just personally, though that applies, too. I'm mad on behalf of the single people who e-mail me with their stories of feeling excluded or devalued in their places of worship.

Not everyone who writes to me about this expresses anger. Some simply ask how to find a church or other place of worship that is accepting of single people. Others wonder how singles are regarded in the teachings of different religions.

I don't know the answers, so a few months ago, I set out to find people from various religions who might be willing to address such questions for readers of this blog. That has been a challenge, as some of the people I've approached have declined or simply never responded.

Happily, though, I now have the first set of responses to my questions. They have been provided by Professor Vanessa Ochs, Associate Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Virginia. Her area of expertise is Judaism. Her discussion will be the topic of my next post.

For subsequent posts in this series on religion, I hope to find experts who are willing to address the issues singles have raised from the perspectives of other religions. (One more person has tentatively agreed, and I have e-mails out to several others. Feel free to send me your suggestions or post them in the Comments section.) In the meantime, you may want to look at Religion Link. There are some promising resources in the section, "As singles increase, ministries adapt and mature."

My usual posts on other topics will continue to appear in this space. The posts in the religion series will appear irregularly, as I find people willing to share their expertise.

My Own Religious Backstory

I was raised Catholic in the tiny town of Dunmore, Pennsylvania (outside of Scranton), where there were basically three kinds of people - Italian, Irish, and Polish - and all of them were Catholic. In my grade school classes of about 25 kids each, there was typically one boy who was Protestant, and we all felt sorry for him.

When I took my first college anthropology class, I was stunned to discover that the world was not overwhelmingly Catholic. (Seriously, I didn't know that.) I think one of the readings referred to Catholic mass as a "primitive ritual." That sure was news, too.

I was a committed Catholic in my childhood. Every May, I created my own May Altar in my bedroom, complete with flowers, candles and a statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary (affectionately called The BVM). I even persuaded an aunt I adored, a lapsed Catholic, to go back to Mass.

By around the time of junior high, I confided to a nun that I did not believe in God or Catholicism or any of the rest of it (I felt guilty about it at the time), and asked if she could recommend anything to read that might persuade me. She gave me a few things. I don't remember any of them, but none did the trick. The only Catholic reading I can recall from those youthful days was a pamphlet filled with questions and answers such as this one (paraphrased): Question: Why does God put hair on your most personal part? Answer: To protect it from even your own eyes.

The junior high version of my religious skepticism was based on a suspicion that most of the people attending St. Anthony's did not really believe any of it, either - they were just there to see friends and family and fellow parishioners, and to be seen. They were there to share stories over the spaghetti suppers in the church basement; for the cookies and coffee in the same church basement after midnight Mass on Christmas Eve; and for the grilled-on-the-spot sausage and pepper sandwiches, the "pasta e fagioli" (pasta with beans), and "pizza fritte" (fried dough) sold at the Church picnics that went on for days each summer.

I never did become religious again. For decades, I've been a true atheist. What's different now, though, is that I think I have a better understanding of what religion has to offer to those who do believe. I've seen the comfort it brings in the worst of times, and the structure and sense of meaning and of community that it can bring at almost any time. I think it was especially important to my grandparents and parents, first or second generation immigrants, who thought therapy was shameful. Their priests were their therapists.

I've reappraised some of my skepticism, too. Suppose some - or even many - of the Catholics of my childhood were there for the spaghetti suppers and the midnight Mass cookies or the church picnics or the camaraderie? Why not consider that a good thing?

The irony of the feelings of marginalization many singles experience in their places of worship is that, so far as I can tell, it doesn't have to be that way. When I think back to those church picnics, I'm struck by just how singles-friendly they really were. People were more likely to wander around in groups of friends than in pairs of romantic partners. Even married couples were not enmeshed; he might be grilling sausages at one booth, she serving up the pizza fritte at another.

But like I said, I'm mad at religion. The way religion has been used in politics to demean and divide people - well, I think that should be a sin. In places of worship, too many singles end up feeling shut out or put down. Is that inherent in the teachings of the religion, or is it possible, within at least some religious traditions, to be true to the theology and also welcoming to singles? Those are some of the kinds of questions that I hope will be answered in this series. Maybe I will even find someone to take on the question of the place in single people's lives of the kind of spirituality that is not defined by organized religion.

The Truth About Atheism