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Pearly Whites

Having brunch with Dr. Laura. Running naked across the 101. Reading the News-Press.

These are all things I’m more likely to be doing on a Sunday morning than attending church.

I’m an atheist. Not an agnostic. Not “spiritual but not religious.” Just a full-blown, you-people-are-crazy, call-me-a-heathen-if-you-must atheist. I can’t even get myself to capitalize the word god (so if it’s upper-cased in this column, you’ll know my editor feels differently).

When our first son was born, my Methodist in-laws asked if we planned to take him to church. “It’s a great place to meet like-minded parents,” they said.

“Unless you don’t believe in god,” my husband chuckled. “Then it’s a place to meet unlike-minded parents.”

But I did go to church — just once — earlier this year. I had heard about this cool local parish that’s high on karma and low on dogma. Everyone I know who goes there is free-thinking, unpreachy, and socially conscious. And I was curious. What could make people give up a precious Sunday morning — unique to the week for its sunny, undemanding emptiness — to put on undergarments and sit on a wooden bench where you might have to think about locusts?

Plus, I’m jealous of the sense of community that church-goers enjoy. They always have babysitters on hand, and volunteers to help them move. No one wants to help an atheist move. No one wants to babysit our heretic children while we’re out at our pagan parties.

So I ducked anonymously into this pretty church and slipped into an empty pew toward the back. Knowing my mouth would be closed for an hour, I withdrew two Crest whitening strips from my purse and pasted them over my teeth. Long as I was purifying my soul, why not bleach my ivories, too? A morning of self-betterment both inside and out.

But when the service started, the pastor asked his flock to introduce themselves to any new faces. Dear god.

The women behind me and beside me both leaned in and extended their hands. Not wanting to expose my peroxide-pasted pearlies, I did what any rational person would do: I pretended to drop my purse and dove toward the floor to pick it up.

“Don’t you write for The Independent?” one said. “Hi,” I mumbled, blushing, with my hand over my mouth. “Nameth Thtarthine.”

“Are you alright?” she asked. They’re very compassionate, these people.

I may be a sinner, but I’m no liar. “I’m whitening my teeth,” I explained. “That’th why I’m talking like thith.”

“You’re … multitasking?” she said, her smile sliding down her face. Was that bad? Surely no god would want me to parade through this world with dingy dentistry.

The service was lovely. Inspiring, even. We sang “Here Comes the Sun” and people shared stories of change in their lives. For the first time, I really understood the appeal of church. Like seeing a therapist, Sunday worship is scheduled mindfulness — setting aside a small chunk of time to think about important things, to wrestle with them quietly, in a softly lit spot, so we can put them out of our heads for the rest of the week.

But I won’t go back. The divinity-invoking raised my hackles, and the congregation was pushy, trying to get me to stay afterward and sign up for things. I’m not a stayer. Not a congregater. Not a signer-upper. Their program just didn’t do enough to wear down my infidel enamel.

The Whitestrips, on the other hand, worked miracles.

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