In the comments thread that spun off of the discussion of whether an atheist could serve as godparent to a Catholic child, plenty of people correctly pointed out that, regardless of Church teaching, plenty of nominally Catholic parents select technically unsuitable godparents. Whether they disobey out of ignorance or intentionally, these actions introduce a certain level of ambiguity about what Catholic traditions look like. Patrick summed up the situation in a comment I’ve excerpted below:
Norms arise from how people behave, as well as how they claim to behave. Often there is a publicly acknowledged rule that has significant silently acknowledged exceptions. This creates problems when someone wants to use the publicly stated rule as a bludgeon against people who are following the silently acknowledged rule, but it is how norms of human behavior function- not as stated laws, but as practiced behaviors…
Well, one of the big places where people do this is with public acts of semi-optional piety. You learn from a young age that these aren’t REAL statements of belief or piety. When you say the Pledge of Allegiance, every child knows that you don’t actually have to believe it. The adults didn’t ask you if you believed it, and they didn’t tell you to say it only if you do. They told you to stand up and recite after them, and you did. The reason is a mixture of everyone hoping that saying it will make you believe it eventually, and everyone believing that collective, concerted statements of belief ave valuable even if the people involved don’t believe…
It is simply part of the normal, every day practice of religion.
Now that does mean that these people are going against the stated norms of their religious communities. But they’re in accord with the unstated norms. They’re in a vulnerable state, because people can get inquisitorial and castigate them for violating the stated norms… and the general rule is that unstated norms only apply as long as no one mentions the fact that stated norms are being violated.
But that’s also a good argument for leaving well enough alone.
I’m in complete agreement up until he gets to his conclusion. I think this kind of empty piety is counterproductive for people on either side of the atheist/Catholic divide. Either side is hurt by widespread comfort with this kind of contradiction. For Catholics or any type of Christian, a community norm of private dissent removes the impetus to question heretical beliefs and, after investigation, return to the fullness of the faith. Atheists like me also chafe at the decreased drive to sort out contradictory beliefs since we believe that, upon examination, it’s the other side’s arguments that will crumble.
Countenancing institutional hypocrisy, especially the kinds of public declarations of faith involved in the godparents’ part of the baptism, saps the idea that we prefer people to believe true things and there are serious consequences when they go wrong. No religion wants to present itself primarily as a useful noble lie, but this is the result when the creeds are routinely mouthed without faith in an attempt at communal experience.
Atheists have another reason to push back against quiet hypocrisy or any call for everyone to just follow their own preferences for the faith, especially when they crop up in a mainstream religion like Catholicism. There can be a tendency among atheists to count unbelieving Christians as a win, since they may actually share all of our doubts about their faith, but I think this attitude is misguided. Silent dissenters bolster the numbers of our opponents and boost the political clout of their leaders.