Another Atheist (me!) goes to church.

Overall, it’s been a very depressing day.

It should have been better. This last week I’ve been working on a project that would bring a capable speaker to Fresno in order to participate in a symposium that is planned by the local New Covenant Church. The highlight of this symposium (to be held on April 18th) is to be a debate between Dinesh D’Souza and an Atheist / Skeptic not yet named. Needless to say, there is a bit of excitement in the local Atheist / Skeptic community right now.

My friends know that when given a project, I often research it to death. You know those boring research papers you had to write for high school? I loved those, and never made less than an “A” on them. My problem wasn’t figuring out what or who to write about, my problem was always winnowing down the content to something less than novella size.

At the outset of this project, I decided that I needed to learn more about New Covenant theology, and what the New Covenant church was all about. I’d never heard about this particular sect before.

So over the last few days I’ve visited their web site, read their newsletter, read a couple of weeks worth of the Pastor’s blog (and associated comments) and have downloaded and listened to two of the Pastor’s podcasts. The pastor, Pastor Jän Van Oosten, is a gifted speaker – intelligent, up to date, and entertaining. His take on D’Souza’s last debate (with Christopher Hitchens) prompted me to download and listen to the debate on Friday, while I carefully soldered together my latest Engineering design at work. (My take on the D’Souza / Hitchens debate? D’Souza is glib. Hitchens needs a vocabulary that doesn’t go over the heads of his audience.)

As part of that research, today I did something that I’ve been told is, “beyond the call of duty”. I attended the New Covenant worship service.

No, no, I didn’t burst into flame. No one had to drag out a fire extinguisher. I didn’t even get a tan.

I’ll go into New Covenant theology at a later point – suffice to say for now that their statement of faith doesn’t match the doctrine of the churches of my past.

The first thing about New Covenant that strikes me is it’s new facilities. Completed last spring, this state-of-the-art building looks more like a California modern contemporary-style office building for doctors than it does a traditional church. This church is computerized, highly organized, and filled with high-tech amenities that include a Starbucks-clone coffee shop with free wi-fi, a computerized check in for children’s ministries, and CDs of the Pastors sermon, burned and waiting for you (for a small fee) as you exit the main chapel. Gone are the days of my past where after service our congregation would gather for free coffee, donuts and fellowship. The fellowship is still free, but the “Tall Coffee” was two dollars.

The main chapel is a spacious wonder of high tech, with special attention paid to acoustics and lighting, and is dominated by two enormous video screens high above a raised stage. A simple wooden cross hangs off to the left. There is no pulpit or rostrum, not even a simple podium. There is no separate area for the choir. There is, however, a 10 piece band that included both an electric keyboard and a baby grand piano, two sets of percussion, guitars, and a truly talented violinist whose efforts I freely admit made me sway in appreciation. There’s no other way to say it – when she brought her violin to her chin, magic happened.

I would guess that the main chapel could easily hold as many as 1,200 people, and I would guess that it was about 80% full. Since New Covenant has two Sunday services I would further guess that membership is approximately 2000 per week. Please note that this is a “guess” – I thought it would be somewhat gauche to stand in the back and take a statistical head count.

There are two control booths at the rear of the chapel, one for audio mixing and the other for computer control of cameras and video screens. I don’t know which controlled the lights. The control booths sang a siren song to my geeky nature, and it was a great effort to reign in my interest.

I still haven’t touched on the youth facilities, upstairs chapel, meeting rooms, or building-wide music and address system… I’ll instead be satisfied in saying that the overall impression I got was of a highly organized, wealthy and powerful congregation joyfully led by a charismatic pastor.

The contrast to the very small membership of the Central Valley Alliance of Atheists and Skeptics was… disheartening. This is the sort of organization that paints Atheists as a wealthy and organized threat, this is an organization that denies that humans have evolved.

As I said, Pastor Van Oosten is a gifted speaker. He used his gifts to concentrate on Genesis 2:4-25 where he stressed to the congregation that they were designed by God for a purpose, and that the entire universe is designed by God for our benefit. A very comforting message, and easy to see its attractiveness.

I found it depressing to realize that this large, wealthy and highly organized congregation was willing to host D’Souza, who has blamed both 9/11 and the Virginia Tech massacre on Atheism and “liberalism”. It was depressing to realize that this congregation rejects the scientific findings of evolution, and that many of the membership believe in a literal 6-day creation, a mere few thousand years ago.

Somewhat depressed, I spent part of the rest of the day at work, soldering my project together and thinking. On my way home I stopped off at the warehouse membership store, Costco, to pick up a copy of this years tax software. While browsing the books there, I was struck by the sheer volume of books that promoted pseudoscience and religion. Books like “The Secret”, and two (two!) fiction books that link Armageddon to the creation of supercomputers.

A little girl and her mother were browsing the books nearby. The girl, about 8 years old, picked out one of the books of real science – a coffee table-sized illustrated book of anatomy – and said clearly to her mother while pointing at an illustration, “Look! It’s possessed by the Devil!” Mom then muttered something non-committal, and they wandered slowly away while I stood there slack-jawed with shock, wondering just what is it that we are teaching today’s children?

On my drive home it was all I could do to not despair or grieve for the future of humanity.

It’s been a bad day.