When You Want to Be a Christian But Don’t Believe in God

11SmallChurch0605_961582909From my latest article at RNS:

The rise of the “nones” — Americans who no longer check a religious affiliation on demographic surveys — has stirred up interesting conversations among church leaders. A generation ago, many Americans would have been considered “nominal” in their devotion. Today, many have stopped claiming a religious identity altogether.

But what happens when the “nones” find themselves longing for the religious world they once knew? Is it possible to reclaim your religious affiliation if you no longer believe in the doctrines of the faith?

This is the situation of Alana Massey, who calls herself a “cultural Christian” — an atheist who finds she can neither fully embrace a secular identity nor abandon her Episcopal heritage. In an article in The Washington Post, “How to Take Christ out of Christianity,” Massey claims a “profound connection to Christianity” even without “theistic belief.” In her experience, secularism isn’t good enough; it doesn’t create a lasting community bond for celebration during the good times and comfort during the bad. What’s more, the “self-help” advice from the nonreligious world is a poor substitute for the robust vision of Christianity, where the moral and ethical stakes in the Bible are so high.

So, if younger American Jews can base their identity on “ancestral, ethnic and cultural connections rather than religious ones,” why can’t Christians celebrate their religion’s moral benefits and societal aspirations, even if they don’t believe in God?

Massey believes we should broaden the meaning of Christianity so that nonbelieving people can be part of the same family seeking peace in the world.

Should we accept a “cultural Christianity” that relishes religious ritual while rejecting religious belief? I offer both a firm “no” and an unreserved “yes.”