I was recently listening to an interview with Ronald A. Lindsay, the president of the Center for Inquiry (CFI). He spoke at one point about his education at Georgetown, a Catholic university, where he--then an ardent Catholic--was appalled to learn that his professor in the study of the gospels, a nun, was also an atheist. He came to respect and like her, but it's nonetheless a striking combination, is it not? It's one thing to imagine a nun--especially one of a scholarly bent--ending up an atheists, but what then compels her to stay in the Church? It could, of course, be mere inertia--easier to stick with the life you already know--especially if she'd been a nun for a long time. Anyone who's ever been in a school has probably seen some teachers like this: going through the motions, any passion they may have had for teaching apparently long gone.
But I'd like to think more positively that such a person might have a real appreciation for aspects of the lifestyle--a life of contemplation, helping people, a sense of community with the cloister... plenty of positive aspects even in the absence of belief in God (at least, if the vow of chastity is no biggie for you). Whatever the reason, there it was.
I bring this up to juxtapose it with something that came up in a conversation with a friend. Before I wrote this entry, I touched base with a conservative-leaning friend of mine who often listens to FoxNews (it was nice, incidentally, that he basically agreed with my analysis). He made a comment (I couldn't really say whether it was serious or not) that only Christians should get Christmas off as a holiday (and everyone else is welcome to their holidays too, naturally). I said that was alright, but I was claiming status as a cultural Christian--rather like a cultural or secular Jew. I mean, I grew up going to church, I get all of Garrison Kiellor's church-related humor, and I get most Biblical references that you can throw at me.
I'll probably only claim this designation, however, if only Christians get Christmas off. But it occurred to me that this was more or less the perfect designation for this nun. She's a cultural Christian, even though she's not a believer. And that's a designation that not only make sense, but it says a lot more than merely "atheist."
At the same time, I wonder how many people who call themselves Christians are, functionally, what I'm calling cultural or secular Christians--even if they don't proclaim a lack of belief in God. Agnostics who go to church, maybe? I don't know--what do you think of the category I'm proposing? How big do you think it is?