Non-Believers Participating In Religious Rituals: A Question of Inclusiveness, Respect for Boundaries, and Consciences

Non-Believers Participating In Religious Rituals: A Question of Inclusiveness, Respect for Boundaries, and Consciences September 8, 2015

After deconverting during my senior year at a conservative evangelical college, I enrolled the next year as a first year philosophy graduate student at a Catholic university. I took university housing and so was assigned my roommates through the graduate school. They were both Catholics. Mike was a medieval studies graduate student and Matthew was a philosophy graduate student focusing on medieval philosophy.

The night I arrived, Matthew and I spent several patient hours explaining our philosophical views to each other. To me it felt like a meeting between two alien species who understood each other’s languages but not each other’s conceptual schemes in the slightest. But the exchange was genial and comparative, rather than contentious. I had never had a philosophical conversation with a well-versed and erudite Thomistic-Aristotelian philosopher before and so despite having studied an undergraduate level of Greek and Medieval philosophy was still very much unprepared for the level of detail and sophistication that he brought to his presentation of his views. I spelled out in a fair amount of detail the personally idiosyncratic, heavily postmodern Nietzscheanism that I was working out at the time, much to his curiosity and disagreement.

This would turn out to be just the first few hours of a philosophical conversation that would last for the entire two years we lived together. During that time, we tended not to debate religious beliefs directly. We were both unabashedly forthright about our opinions and that was as far as it went besides a few regrettably heated moments one night. For the most part we debated issues we both found interesting and could find common ground on, like whether or not I start cooking spaghetti when I start boiling the water or at the moment that the water starts boiling the spaghetti. This surprisingly illuminating debate ranged until our last contact. We also discussed a range of other, sometimes more and sometimes less pressing, philosophical issues.

Over time, I probably would wind up much more of an Aristotelian Nietzschean instead of a postmodern one and I imagine that I would take Matthew’s side in our arguments surprisingly more often now than I did then. One of Fordham’s philosophical specialties is Aristotelianism. You can get Aristotelianism in seemingly any flavor it exists in at Fordham. Scholastic Aristotelians, Phenomenological Aristotelians, Contemporary Analytic Aristotelians, Marxist Aristotelians, Pragmatic Aristotelians, and even good old fashioned Aristotelian Aristotelians. And, at least towards the end of my days there, you may have bumped into a curiously Aristotelian Nietzschean. So, I don’t know how much of my Aristotelianism is Matthew’s doing but he played a role I fondly remember.

Matthew’s Catholicism was very devout and a total influence on his life. And I like to think that it was as an expression of his faith, rather than any limitation of it, that he was so incredibly intellectually and socially charitable and gracious to me as an atheist. Matthew was a careful, passionate, patient, persuasive, and convinced thinker. He had intricately worked out beliefs and a great enthusiasm for expressing them. But aside from our one exchange where we mutually lost our tempers, there was never any acrimony over our differences over religion. His every reply was always so patient and methodical. Neither of us ever had to hide what we really thought and but for the one time we never got offended at each other’s frankness of opinions. If we disagreed with each other, even about matters of moral conviction to each other, we noted it, but never in a way that made the other feel judged or stifled.

Essentially, what Matthew and I had was a model relationship of mutual respectful philosophical engagement amidst religious disagreement. The fact that he was a Catholic and I was an atheist were never matters to divide us from being close intellectual friends.

In recent days, various atheist bloggers have been talking about whether they would pray with believers who asked them to. There are a wide array of contexts in which believers might ask nonbelievers to engage in one form or another of religious participation. Earlier today I stressed that as my primary position, I would avoid misleading believers into thinking I believe as they do in order to pray with them when they are merely feeling low and trying to cope. I am bracketing for now immediately traumatic situations as another category.

But in the context, of this discussion, Matthew has come back to mind because I have been remembering how honored I was to participate in his wedding. Matthew’s wedding was, the most conservative and liturgically involved form of  Catholic wedding that I think is possible to have. That meant that it went on a very long time and involved a long series of ritual religious motions. It was as expressly religious as weddings come.

And I have always been genuinely touched that Matthew asked me to be a groomsman despite my being an atheist. And I’ve felt this way because there was not an iota of proselytizing intent involved but rather, in the context of the fullest respect for me as an atheistic thinker and friend, he was being inclusive and putting our friendship over demands that we share the same opinion. Given how much purity of religious form meant to him, it was deeply meaningful to me that he had room in his ceremony for someone who didn’t share the religious content but would participate in the elaborate rituals involved as an expression of friendship instead. He was willing to compromise on the full religious rigor of his religious ceremony to include me and so, in turn, I respectfully and gratefully made every gesture required of me, as best I could figure out what they were, and bracketed all of my own personal religious viewpoints out of an understanding that this ceremony was not about my religious expression, but about Matthew’s and his bride’s, and it had room for an unrepentant unbeliever at the altar. (By contrast, I’m dispirited at countless non-Catholics who have Catholic weddings only to appease their Catholic families. I want marriage ceremonies to accurately reflect the beliefs and values of those marrying–is that too much to ask?)

I was told that Matthew and we groomsmen were somewhat hilarious to watch. Matthew knew the liturgy the best, his best man was mostly on top of it but would often have to take Matthew’s cues, then the next groomsman would quickly start mimicking the best man, and then on the end I would frantically try to keep up with the other groomsman. So every liturgical gesture would basically sweep in a wave from Matthew through three other men.

Around this same time, I can’t remember whether before or after, Matthew also came back to Fordham to defend his dissertation and I did my best to make sure that he had photos to remember the experience. His dissertation adviser was a professor and Jesuit priest who took kindly to me, especially that day, and several times has sent me opportunities to write book reviews about texts on Nietzsche for the philosophical journal he edits and it’s thanks to him that I was given the opportunity to contribute to the New Catholic Encyclopedia, Supplement 2012-13: Ethics and Philosophy

What I am so proud of in my association with Fordham is that in these collegial friendships I was so consistently respected for my own views and values. No one there ever tried to conscript me into a religious activity against my will with the dismissive contempt that says “why should you care, you’re an atheist” as though that meant my mind was so void of any personally or philosophically serious beliefs and values that surely they can be abandoned or subordinated for the obviously more conscientiously held religious beliefs and practices of someone else.

When a non-believer visits a house of worship or a commencement at a religious school and is exposed to prayer and religious speeches, there’s little intrinsically offensive about that. (I do have philosophical problems enduring Catholic funerals when they preach a denial of the reality of death right at the moment people are most nakedly confronted with it. I also don’t like some of the shameless attempts to exploit these moments of grief to ramp up typically nominal believers’ religious fervor. I also was appalled when the priest at my grandmother’s wake bashed atheists.) Many religions are respectful of the consciences of people of different faiths and non-believers in their midst. Perhaps ironically, the Catholic practice of explicitly not welcoming non-Catholics to partake of the Eucharist feels very inclusive to me. It highlights how many people present are not Catholics and how okay it is that we not participate in their religious ceremony. This allows for a kind of religious engagement that respects whether you belong to the religion or not. And so long as I don’t get in trouble when I refuse to kneel when everyone else does (unless it’s clear I’m doing it for a friend and not for that friend’s God), then I’m okay.

What’s not okay is the kind of encroachment of religious ceremony into non-religious activities that makes religious belief a tacit condition of full group membership. No one should feel either soft or explicit pressure to pray lest they not be a full member of their town, their platoon, their secular classroom, their office, their scouting group, their operating team, their football team, their cheerleading squad, etc. Participating in civic government, the military, school, scouting, surgery, sports, or any of a number of basic kinds of employment that have nothing to do with religion shouldn’t come with a requirement of religious participation. The choice of “going along” with religious ritual or feel less fully a part of a non-religious activity shouldn’t be foist non-believers and people of underrepresented faiths.

And similarly, families shouldn’t send the message to their non-believing kin that either they pray or they’re not a full member of the family. And I think that ideally this even means not saying grace with atheist family members present because it is exclusionary and does risk alienating a non-believing family member. I understand that norm won’t change over night but at minimum we can be sticklers that atheists not be conscripted to participate against their consciences in families where their atheism is not routinely respected and cherished as much as other family members’ faith is.

And finally, for a sizable segment of religious people, trying to get unbelievers to go along with religious participation evinces an incredible lack of respect for boundaries. Cassidy has a fantastic must read piece about this that I will simply refer you to instead of letting this post grow too long. Galen has a similarly excellent post about compromising with integrity. And I explained the logic of intended dominance that I dislike about it myself last winter in my post on why true believers want us to lie before God.

Because of the kinds of believers who don’t regularly respect atheist consciences as wonderfully as Matthew and Fordham always respected mine, many attempts to conscript non-believers into religious participation are expressions of religious privilege that reinforce religious hegemony. And while I respect atheists’ choices to acquiesce when it’s a matter of protecting themselves from religious privilege and religious intolerance, we need to stand up for a culture in which atheist participation in expressly theistic rituals is a product of mutual respect and mutual acknowledgment, rather than the result of a power imbalance that erases atheists’ philosophical consciences as a matter of course.

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