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.
Although 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.
Christianity is the dominant religion in the United States, but the cultural experience of Christianity here varies at least as widely as its practice does across denominations, families and individuals. Despite the persistence of “Catholic guilt,” only a third of people who identified as Catholic in a General Social Survey in 2014 were actually practicing the faith. Polls conducted by the evangelical research firm Barna Group found that young people leave because of factors such as the church’s views on sexuality and science, and its failure to acknowledge “the problems of the real world.”
Their liberal counterparts don’t fare much better: “Liberal Protestant churches, which have famously lax requirements about praxis, belief, and personal investment, therefore often end up having a lot of half-committed believers in their pews,” writes Connor Wood, a Ph.D. candidate in religious studies at Boston University. “The parishioners sitting next to them can sense that the social fabric of their church isn’t particularly robust, which deters them from investing further in the collective.”
Not belonging to a religious institution doesn’t mean you don’t have a cultural attachment to your religious history. Just look at the more familiar concept of cultural Judaism. Among younger American Jews, cultural ties are increasingly the basis of their connection to their faith; 32 percent of Jewish American millennials told a Pew survey in 2013 that their Jewish identity is based on ancestral, ethnic and cultural connections rather than religious ones.
Rabbi Miriam Jerris of the Society of Humanistic Judaism says cultural Jews and cultural Christians who celebrate their religious traditions have a lot in common (though they’re not completely analogous, because Judaism has a long history as both a religion and an ethnicity): “These people are looking for communities and for memories from their background, but they want to do it in an intellectually consistent way.”
The decline in religious affiliation has Christian churches worried, but they aren’t alone in their concern. “The big question I have is: Where are they going in times of crisis? Where do they go to celebrate life’s joys?” says Chris Stedman, the executive director of the Yale Humanist Community and the author of Faitheist, which argues that atheists can find common ground with born-again Christians. “There are people looking for centralized ways to organize their communities around moral identities that they might be missing.”
The “New Atheism” of the early 2000s gave us firebrands like Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins, but as scientists rather than philosophers or organizers, and many believers thought that they misrepresented religion and thus failed to give people much to rally around besides anger at their loved ones. The Sunday Assembly, a self-described “godless congregation,” has made the news lately for its growing numbers, and it is good that people find community there. But its motto of “live better, help often, wonder more,” and its mission “to help everyone find and fulfill their full potential,” leave something to be desired for those who feel the moral stakes are higher in the Christian narrative. Even people raised without religion can be fatigued by this feel-good focus on the self.
People don’t just want to feel good, they want to be good. That’s especially true for younger people; I often hear variations on “Jesus was a nice hippie” from baby boomers, but I hear “Jesus was an anti-capitalist insurrectionist murdered by law enforcement in broad daylight” from my generation, and it’s the latter vision of social activism that appeals to us more.
Some Christians who do believe in God are trying anew to reach those of us who don’t. One is Pope Francis, whose invitation to atheists to seek peace alongside believers, along with his many critiques of structural inequality, suggest a potential readiness to broaden what it means to be a Christian. Marquette University professor Daniel Maguire, a theologian and former Catholic priest, makes the case in his book Christianity Without God for reclaiming the Bible’s epic moral narrative and leaving behind its theistic elements to combat neoliberal economics and environmental destruction.
“When believers and nonbelievers are working together, the God thing doesn’t matter a bit,” he told me. “It is just a backdrop to the issues in the real world.” Cultural Christianity has already emerged in practice, even before it’s become a self-professed identity.
Why should cultural Christians bother trying to reconcile with churches? “People very understandably associate religious institutions with very real harm and danger,” Stedman says. “But institutions are also places where people share ideas and where they organize, and heal, and hold each other accountable.”
That’s been especially evident this year in anti-police-brutality organizing, in which churches have served as bases for people to grieve but also to catalyze otherwise disparate groups into meaningful protest. Maguire noted that many people stick with church despite nonbelief because no other communities share their moral passions: “I think we’re in the interim period where we haven’t created the alternatives yet.”
In his book, Maguire calls churches “poems in stone and glass and metal.” As more church buildings are turned into condos every day, their histories and memories and communities are put at risk, but there is an opportunity to, for lack of a better word, resurrect them. Pew research shows that 9 percent of American adults are “reverts” who leave their religious tradition but come back. In a 2012 USA Today report on this phenomenon, only one person mentioned God as the reason for going back.
Evangelical leaders in the Convergence Movement have stated commitments to safe spaces for theological discussion and to efforts at inclusivity. At All Souls Unitarian Church in Tulsa, that inclusivity is lived out every Sunday: The building hosts Protestant, Pentecostal and humanist services under one roof.
“It can be hard for some who came seeking refuge from negative Christian religious experiences to wrap their heads and hearts around the fact that we have Christian believers in our community as well,” says resident minister David Ruffin. “But the only refuge we can take is in a love that’s big enough for both.”
Believing Christians need not water down the fact that God is at the root of their commitments and traditions to accommodate nonbelievers. And nonbelievers need not make a point of telling their believing brethren that general goodwill or humanism is a better motivation for good works.
As Maguire points out, the biblical metaphor for society is a household, not an institution but a dwelling place for a family. Though families will quarrel over what they don’t have in common, they are meant to come together for what they do: an ancient story of a new family formed in a place most of us will never go and a call to peace in the world that none of us can ever entirely live up to. That is worth keeping alive for its radical, enduring and miraculous love.