Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Secular Christian?

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?


  1. My husband and I occasionally attended the local Quaker meeting when we lived in Seattle, and one guy there told us that he was an atheist, but liked going to the meetings anyway. I think he'd definitely qualify under your criteria here. He liked the community aspects of the faith, and the meditative process, but simply didn't believe in God.

  2. You call it "cultural Christian" I call it "Unitarian Universalist" - I'm kidding :)

    As someone who grew up in a predominantly Italian Catholic family, I am familiar with the rhythms and language of Catholicism, and consider myself "culturally Catholic," even though I choose to worship as a UU because I like the politics and social justice of that faith, and the concept that even though we all have different beliefs (some of us identify as Christian - I'm in a mixed marriage - my husband is Baptist, some as Jewish, agnostic, atheist, Buddhist, etc.) we are all on a journey toward truth, and it's okay if my truth and your truth are different, as long as we respect each other's vision.

    Sorry, haven't had coffee, so I'm babbling.

    But...speaking as someone who has a great-uncle who is a Franciscan priest, has friends who are UU ministers, and who is considering a path to ministry herself, I can confirm that many, many "religious" people don't necessarily believe in God.

  3. Well, another UU chiming in here: we have people in our congregation who call themselves "ethical Christians." They follow the ethical teachings of Jesus but do not consider him their personal savior in the traditional Christian context.