I went to church this week. At least, I attended a worship service, complete with singing, a sermon, Bible reading and communion (I did not participate in any of these things, of course, since I was working). This was the first time since becoming an atheist so many years ago. In fact, this is the first service I have attended in many years; even before becoming an atheist I hadn't been to a service for years. Toward the end, my spiritual life was getting by on nothing but a whisper and some guilt.
I was actually very interested in listening to the service. I had always regarded church services as a great social resource. That is, they were like a free weekly class that (ideally) challenges your mind and teaches you something new and interesting. If nothing else, it was an opportunity for philosophical stimulation and mental growth.
But the service was very disappointing. There was no mental stimulation in any way. Perhaps it was the message, but I think that the real culprit is that my mind has changed too much. I never realized how much the Christian message depended on the Christian preconceptions. I know that might sound like a dumb thing to say, but I had really thought (without actually thinking about it) that the general message was more universal and that God was in the details, kind the same way that I can still celebrate and enjoy Christmas without believing in either Jesus Christ or Santa Claus. But that isn't true. The essence of Christianity is not general good will and community - those are the subsequent details. The true essence of Christianity is sin and repentance. The driving narrative is that we are all evil and corrupt and destined for eternal punishment - not only that, but we truly deserve it because we are wretched to the core. But then Jesus died for our sins and now we owe him our everlasting gratitude, love and adoration.
The funny thing is that I knew all of this. On a basic philosophic level I understood exactly what Christianity stood for and exactly why I disagree with virtually everything it had to say. But on a practical, flesh and blood level I still had (apparently) some misconceptions of what it was all about. I know that there are certainly some massive and major differences between different sects and denominations of Christianity and that if I were to look I would find one that matched my misconceptions. And the service that I observed was different from my own religious background in some fundamental ways, but in some significant ways it was very similar to what I was used to. I knew all the words to all the songs, I knew the creeds that the congregation was reciting, and I even knew the verses that were being read. It all felt very familiar and comfortable but also terribly awkward and even comical.
I know that humans are all alike. Our similarities vastly outweigh our differences. Without the benefit of the church service to lay our philosophical differences bare, I would never even think to compare us. So I don't want to make too much out of the differences, but as much as they can be, our worldviews are complete opposites. The assumptions that theists make about humanity and morality and even the nature of life itself have a measurable impact in the way in which they live their lives.
I have no regrets at this point. Although I felt a tingle of familiarity, I did not feel any desire to go back to church. I don't have any desire to go back before the veil of deception fell off, before the scales fell from my eyes, if you'll excuse the expression. Now that I have seen the wonders of the natural world and the richness that a life free of superstition can offer, I would not trade it back to believe in god. The universe is bigger and more fantastic than any god could possibly be.