In Judaism, it’s fairly common to hear, “I’m an atheist, but I’m culturally Jewish.” So why can’t a person be an atheist but culturally Christian?
It turns out that some people like going to church–singing hymns, performing rituals, being part of a community, getting morally inspired–but they have trouble with the God part. An op-ed by Alana Massey calls for churches to make a space for unbelievers who nevertheless want to be “cultural Christians.”
When I tell my socially progressive, atheist friends that I’m “culturally Christian,” they’re momentarily concerned that I have a latent preoccupation with guns and the Pledge of Allegiance. Using the term with devout believers gets me instructions that I just need to read more sophisticated theology to come around. I’ve tried hard to accept my fully secular identity, and at other times I’ve tried to read myself into theistic belief, going all the way through divinity school as part of the effort. Still, I remain unable to will myself into any belief in God or gods — but also unable to abandon my relationship to the Episcopalian faith into which I was born and to the ancient stories from which it came.And though I am without a god, I am not alone.
The group of nonbelievers dubbed “Nones” in the media — because they don’t mark a religious affiliation on demographic surveys — grew from 15 percent of the U.S. population to 20 percent between 2007 and 2012; almost a third of them are under 30. These are the people who identify with ambivalent, ambiguous statements like “I’m spiritual, but not religious”; “I’m kind of agnostic”; “Now I’m an atheist, but I grew up Catholic”; or “I believe in something, but I don’t know if it’s God.” There are those of us, too, who still feel a profound connection to the Christianity we grew up with but who can no longer — or never could — connect those feelings to theistic belief. Some miss the ritual of singing in unison or wishing peace to their neighbors in a pew. Others miss feeling grounded in a community where they can celebrate life’s milestones and heartbreaks. Some find secular life lacking in sufficient ethical frameworks and systems of accountability to reinforce them. For many, it is a combination of all three.
All those severed connections, though, mean a new opportunity to create spaces for the “culturally Christian” nonbeliever and to examine how churches lost them in the first place.
I don’t even know where to start with this. Help me out.