Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Secular Christians

There's a new book called "Faitheist" that argues for non-believers and people of faith to work together.  The Professional Atheists are up in arms about it because they feel it shields or defends religion, which they view as an enemy.  This is why I don't like the term "atheist" to describe myself.   Because I'm not interested in attacking religion, and I'm not just advocating getting along, like the author of the book.  No,  I'm actually part of it.  

We've talked before about "gratheists" like me (here and here, for starters, and on a more personal level, here.)  

Here's a new entry to the discussion, from an atheist's blog on Patheos, that actively advocates for a secular Christian identity that would mirror that of the secular Jewish community (Judaism is particularly welcoming of its nonbelievers).
Consider what this might be like. A secular Christian—I could be a candidate, for example—might go to church for the beautiful or traditional or inspiring music. The church building might be a draw, whether it were awe-inspiring or quaint. Sermons about finding the right path or avoiding the shallow temptations in life or even Bible stories might be edifying. Services could mark the important events in life such as births, marriages, and deaths. Whether the secular Christian went weekly or only a few times a year, the community of good people, eager to help others, would be welcoming. It might give focus to good works, providing opportunities for volunteering and direction for charitable giving. 
But—and here’s the interesting bit—secular Christians would reject the supernatural origin of Christianity, would be open about their atheism, and would be accepted within the church community. The Christian church has millions of members who are secular Christians except for the last bit. They’ve lost their faith in the supernatural claims, they’ve admitted this to themselves, but they can’t come out to their church community. The concept of a secular Christian would allow these people to keep their community, charitable, and even family connections. 
The Christian church isn’t pleased with these ex-Christians simply leaving the church, and this broadening of the church community, as is done in many Jewish communities, could provide a soft landing for many mainstream churches hurting for members. Conservatives will insist that a no-compromise position be taken, but the church is determined to evolve, and this direction seems to be a win-win. 
I've described this as being "culturally Christian" but "secular Christian" works just as well.

So, it's an interesting question.  What defines a relationship with the Church?  Is it shared faith, or shared community?

Originally, I attended church with my wife as an expression of support during her long swim from Rome to Canterbury.  But now, I go not just for her, but for me too.   I'm a non-believing member of an Episcopal Parish.  Indeed, I'm technically "legal" as a member:  As a child, I was baptised and confirmed Roman Catholic.  I had a good religious education (Catholic school through 8th grade).  Now, as an adult, I  not only attend services but donate time and treasure to the Episcopal Church.

Probably the main difference between me and other people who might fit this description is that I'm not in the closet about my lack of belief  (although I admit I'm hesitant about telling people I don't know well, in case they take it the wrong way or think I'm being disrespectful, which I am at pains to avoid). I don't take Communion, and while I enjoy the service, generally I don't say the words or sing the hymns.

And many of our community know, and accept me for who I am.  I'm not trying to convert them, and they are not trying to convert me.  It's mutual respect.  And, I've learned I'm not the only one in the community who has a.... shall we say, non-traditional relationship with faith.

So, is there an explicit place for the culturally Christian that allows the Church to reclaim them (me) as part of the family?

Update:  A followup to this essay is here.


Adam Wood said...

"Secular Christian" already describes most of the people who go to church already.

Chris Sissons said...

I agree with much of what you have written and I'm sure the history of atheist Christians goes much further back than we usually realise.

However, the use of 'secular' to describe atheist Christians cannot be right. 'Secular' does not mean atheist, secular society grew out of the struggle between dissenting Christian traditions and the established church in Britain. It is one of the foundations of modern ecumenism. If atheist Christians are ever accepted by theistic Christians, all of them would be secular.

JCF said...

I don't take Communion, and while I enjoy the service, generally I don't say the words or sing the hymns.

Hmmm. I rather think music is an "Art for Art's Sake" kind of thing. I'm fairly certain I've sung non-Christian sacred music at some point in my life (well, besides singing along w/ George Harrison on "My Sweet Lord": his lord was Krishna, after all! ;-) For that matter, I've also sung along w/ John Lennon on "Imagine": an atheist anthem if ever there was one)


I know I ride your case on this, IT, but I have so much trouble w/ you describing yourself as a "non-believer". Yes, I get it: you reject the Nicene Creed. Probably *most* Episcopalians do, on some points, at some times? [I always inclusify it when I profess it: I REFUSE to call the Holy Spirit "He"!]

But there is SO much more to "believing" than the Creed. Probably the *most important* parts of Faith are (almost by definition) ineffable. Think of the apophatic tradition, wherein Faith is approached (NOT defined!) by what one does NOT believe [because of the ever-present danger that faith, defined, is mere idolatry. That the words and concepts surround "God" are but idols, fashioned for puny/selfish human intelligence to MANIPULATE, well, other humans, mainly.]

Well, that's enough JCF blather for now.

Erp said...

I wouldn't say all 'professional atheists' are against Stedman. Certainly Hemant Mehta has been supportive.

btw Richard Dawkins has described himself as a 'cultural Christian' so the term is quite broad. I would describe myself as one also (though I'm inclined to sing the hymns much to the regret of others near me).

MarkBrunson said...

Sorry, but I just have to say that I was talking about this, in these very terms, years ago!

it's margaret said...


Well, the Church has always said that faith is a gift of the Spirit --so, faith is one of the charisms meant to be shared for the benefit of all... So, yes, there can be Christians who have no faith at all, but carry other gifts of the Spirit for the benefit of all.

In the greatest, widest sense of the word, I am not a 'theistic' Christian myself. Because of the great gift of the Incarnation, "God" has pitched a tent among us --"God" is with us --there is no "God" out there --so, I suppose there might be some who would call me atheistic. Oh well....

The word that leapt off the page at me, and is bugging me is "supernatural" --I think it is utterly false to say that Christianity has "supernatural" origins --Jesus had a bellybutton... nothing supernatural about that. The idea of a "supernatural" faith is a misapprehension and literalization of "Son of God" --and denies the other 'titles' given such as "Son of Man" etc.... but, perhaps I digress.... sigh...

Any way --living as I do in another culture where the distinction between secular and what might best be described as spiritual --the distinction between the two is non-existant. And the expressions of Christianity are decidedly different. So, to describe one's self as a cultural Christian implies, from my vantage point, a universal Christian culture --and there isn't one --so it is kinda moot. (Either that, or one trips in to a danger zone of cultural imperialism?)

As to being a secular Christian.... well, the only reason for the Church to exist is to love the world (in the ancient lingo of the Church) --or, I guess, in contemporary language --all that is secular --so, in that regard --I guess/hope I am a secular Christian.

Just some thoughts....

Counterlight said...

I think of myself as an agnostic Christian.
In some circles, that doesn't count as Christian at all, and in others, it's too Christian for comfort.

Unknown said...

Hmmm. When I joined the church, in college long ago, I said to myself that I'd "bracket the God question." And I suppose I would still count as an agnostic to the extent that I think theological claims are highly speculative. And I'm certain that no Evangelical Christian would count me as a religious believer.

One thing I wonder though, which bothered me when I joined: does secular Christianity mean that one can't join the Church? In the case of Judaism, since belonging is, as it were, disjunctive--either you believe OR (inclusive or) you're ethnically connected--leaves open the possibility for non-believing belonging. But how would this work for Christianity?

My fear was that it was a disjunctive thing so that it wasn't allowed to be a culture Christian unless one was brought up or descended from Christians. I know it's a kind of strange worry.