An atheist describes what drew him to the Catholic church

Bart Everson is a “religious atheist.”

Yes, he knows it sounds like an oxymoron, but he’s fine with that.


He wrote in a piece for the Mid-City Messenger that religion for him doesn’t have to be about God.

For example, Buddhism is one of the world’s largest religions, yet its adherents don’t worship the Buddha. Pagans don’t necessarily worship a god or gods, either. Labels, according to Everson, don’t necessarily reflect reality. As an employee of a Catholic school, he disagrees with many of the Catholic Church’s teachings, but nevertheless grew to appreciate certain traditions that give him a sense of purpose. That’s what he’s referred to when he says he’s “religious.”

After years of working in a Catholic institution with a mission of social justice, I’ve come to appreciate certain aspects of the Roman Catholic Church in general and its many particular manifestations. I’ve studied the life of the founder of our school, an extraordinary woman who was canonized as a saint at the beginning of this century. I’ve studied the most recent encyclical by Pope Francis, and even went so far as to convene a study group on campus.

While I retain serious disagreements about crucial theological questions, to say nothing of certain doctrines and policies which strike me as oppressive, still I’ve found much of value and I’ve encountered much work which I simply have to respect.

Recently, Everson was asked to speak at his school’s “Morning Prayer,” despite his lack of a traditional religious stance. After some deliberation, Everson accepted the offer, and was moved by the display of acceptance he found:

Every dimension of identity has its unique and peculiar characteristics. Religious identity is constructed differently than race or class or gender or sexual orientation. Even so, I fancy I can learn something through extrapolation, and I am hopeful this will make me a more thoughtful and compassionate ally in the struggle for justice.

I appreciate Everson’s thoughts, and especially his lack of bitterness toward all things having to do with religion (though to be fair, that bitterness is usually deserved). But his piece reminds me of thoughts from Neil Carter, who blogs at Godless in Dixie, regarding the lack of community in atheist groups:

When the only thing you have uniting you is that you don’t believe in something, it leaves a hollow center where there would otherwise be an organizing anchor, a centripetal core, if you will…

Atheists need community. We need organizational structures which help knit us together and provide a context in which we can flourish and thrive. Together we are stronger than we ever could be all by our lonesomes. We need community — even organized community — in ways that many of us do not naturally appreciate.

I hope Everson doesn’t lose his appreciation for religious structures that differ from his own when they’re used to advance a goal he finds worthy. At the same time, I hope he finds a community where he is free to speak his mind and be his authentic self, all while nourishing his drive for social justice.

(Image via Shutterstock)

This piece originally appeared on Friendly Atheist.


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4 thoughts on “An atheist describes what drew him to the Catholic church

  1. I’m not and haven’t ever been what I would consider an atheist so I am looking at this from the outside, but I think the inclusion of atheists in religious structures is a great thing. I know there are Unitarian Universalists and Quakers who describe themselves as religious atheists, and I know a number of Jewish people identify that way as well. It seems like there’s less of a presence of Christian atheists in mainstream Christianity, which I suspect is due to the usual emphasis on the importance of beliefs? But I have met and heard of liberal Christians who are atheists (including a pastor) but still consider themselves religious and participate in the church because they feel attached to the culture of the religion and find meaningful interpretation of it even if it doesn’t include deity. I think having the focus of Christianity be less on conforming to specific beliefs would be a huge benefit to the church.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. As an atheist who still visits a church on occasion this resonates a little. I do have far more negative church baggage but because that negative power of the church has now gone for me – no more fear of judgement or hell for instance – I can enjoy a church visit on a different level. I can enjoy music or rituals without feeling small and the need to look up to a spiritual leader. I no longer have to accept or buy into beliefs that I don’t want to or don’t like and funnily enough that gives me freedom to enjoy some aspects of the church better. The distance helps: I am much more mellow because the church’s importance and impact on my personal life is gone.

    There is something liberating in that for me: I only now feel like I enter a church as an equal rather than as a docile follower, and I think that personally I needed to stop believing before I could do so. I’m sure it could be very different for others and one’s personal church experiences plays a large role in such feelings I think.

    Anyway, I enjoy stories like this where mutual respect is shown and differences are celebrated and accepted.

    Liked by 1 person

    • “Anyway, I enjoy stories like this where mutual respect is shown and differences are celebrated and accepted.”

      I do too. One of the hardest parts of writing for an atheist blog is having my words discredited in the comments because I’m not “one of them” – but then I have more conservative Christians do that to me all the time, so what can you do? Probably shouldn’t ever read comments 😉 I like people like Bart who can see the good in the midst of the more problematic stuff. And he’s not really “picking and choosing” since he doesn’t identify as Catholic.


      • People can be really tribal that way. I like people who can see or work for the good too. I also think it’s easier to be harsher in comments than in real life, and that unfortunately happens quite a bit. It’s more anonymous and people say stuff in the heat of the moment. I do too sometimes – and then I read it later and I think: I was quite angry and it does show.

        There’s a cultural component to religion too and it seems to me that he is drawn to that. To the role that a church may play and the ritiuals it can provide. I don’t mind the cultural role of churches in, for instance, funerals or such (as long as there is attention for the person that died and it’s not just a “come to Jesus” type of sermon). Religion does shape countries and cultures. Well-known hymns or other rituals can also become part of the wider culture. I think that goes for some church music in Great Britain; that some church music has become a part of their culture as well.

        In the Netherlands many of our proverbs come straight out of the Bible, our King James’ version, which is the Statenvertaling of 1637. Religion does seep into the larger culture as well, as far as I’m concerned that’s just because of history. Because of it’s larger role in the past and in some ways its role to this day, albeit it a smaller one.


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