Taking religion seriously and moving beyond an ‘unreflective atheism or agnosticism’

Filed in Spirituality by on April 17, 2014 2 Comments


In a recent article, Charles Murray advises that an important aspect of living a fulfilling life is to take religion seriously. “Start by jarring yourself out of unreflective atheism or agnosticism”.

Now that we’re alone, here’s where a lot of you stand when it comes to religion: It isn’t for you. You don’t mind if other people are devout, but you don’t get it. Smart people don’t believe that stuff anymore.

I can be sure that is what many of you think because your generation of high-IQ, college-educated young people, like mine 50 years ago, has been as thoroughly socialized to be secular as your counterparts in preceding generations were socialized to be devout. Some of you grew up with parents who weren’t religious, and you’ve never given religion a thought. Others of you followed the religion of your parents as children but left religion behind as you were socialized by college.

By socialized, I don’t mean that you studied theology under professors who persuaded you that Thomas Aquinas was wrong. You didn’t study theology at all. None of the professors you admired were religious. When the topic of religion came up, they treated it dismissively or as a subject of humor. You went along with the zeitgeist.

I am describing my own religious life from the time I went to Harvard until my late 40s. At that point, my wife, prompted by the birth of our first child, had found a religious tradition in which she was comfortable, Quakerism, and had been attending Quaker meetings for several years. I began keeping her company and started reading on religion. I still describe myself as an agnostic, but my unbelief is getting shaky.

Taking religion seriously means work. If you’re waiting for a road-to-Damascus experience, you’re kidding yourself. Getting inside the wisdom of the great religions doesn’t happen by sitting on beaches, watching sunsets and waiting for enlightenment. It can easily require as much intellectual effort as a law degree.

Even dabbling at the edges has demonstrated to me the depths of Judaism, Buddhism and Taoism. I assume that I would find similar depths in Islam and Hinduism as well. I certainly have developed a far greater appreciation for Christianity, the tradition with which I’m most familiar. The Sunday school stories I learned as a child bear no resemblance to Christianity taken seriously. You’ve got to grapple with the real thing.

Start by jarring yourself out of unreflective atheism or agnosticism. A good way to do that is to read about contemporary cosmology. The universe isn’t only stranger than we knew; it is stranger and vastly more unlikely than we could have imagined, and we aren’t even close to discovering its last mysteries. That reading won’t lead you to religion, but it may stop you from being unreflective.

Find ways to put yourself around people who are profoundly religious. You will encounter individuals whose intelligence, judgment and critical faculties are as impressive as those of your smartest atheist friends—and who also possess a disquieting confidence in an underlying reality behind the many religious dogmas.

They have learned to reconcile faith and reason, yes, but beyond that, they persuasively convey ways of knowing that transcend intellectual understanding. They exhibit in their own personae a kind of wisdom that goes beyond just having intelligence and good judgment.

Start reading religious literature. You don’t have to go back to Aquinas (though that wouldn’t be a bad idea). The past hundred years have produced excellent and accessible work, much of it written by people who came to adulthood as uninvolved in religion as you are.

Following this line of thought, might I suggest the work of Fr Tomas Halik, the most recent recipient of the Templeton Prize. He has spent some time thinking through the spirituality of atheism and agnosticism. A great introduction to his thought would be this article.

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Fr Jerome Santamaria

About the Author ()

Fr Jerome Santamaria is a priest of the Archdiocese of Melbourne, Australia.

Comments (2)

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  1. Marie Dean says:

    Good article and I hope you have read the Pope Emeritus’ book The Yes of Jesus Christ, published in 1989 on this very subject.

  2. Paul Rodden says:

    This is an excellent piece! Thanks for posting it.

    However, for me, it somewhat turns round and bites a recent trend in Catholicism I’m observing. I’ve noticed a lot of supposedly intelligent/orthodox Catholics beginning to suffer from what could be called ‘bandwaggon syndrome’.

    What I mean by this, is that, like atheists, driven, or socialised by the zeitgeist – or ‘by osmosis’, as some say – where the ideas Richard Dawkins, AC Grayling, Christopher Hitchens, et., have percolated into society’s consciousness through the (new) media, so there’s a similar effect happening in Catholic circles, but I consider it just as unhealthy.

    This other ‘zeitgeist’, is being driven by frameworks or schemas developed by Catholic ‘celebrities’, like Sherry Weddell, George Weigel, etc., in the new media, causing a narrowing of consciousness, as if these are the primary lenses through which we should be viewing or judging the state of Catholic/parish life.

    To me, this zeitgeist, like the atheist one, seems to share a common root in the Reformation/Enlightenment, and is being used as a Procrustean Bed by which to judge who’s ‘in’ and who’s ‘out’, but based primarily on ’empirical’ evidence. (How can these people – atheist or Catholic – judge the state, or stage, people are at spiritually – from the outside?)

    As an example, there are catechists judging where people/parishes are in their spiritual journey using ’empirical’ criteria set by Sherry Weddell. Now, I think her book, like most ‘secondary texts’ as I’d call them are useful, as are the books by Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchens, et al, as a very rough rule of thumb or heuristic to take the temperature of the zeitgeist, but both groups go further, and seem to use it, as I said, like a Procrustean Bed.

    Whenever I see this taking place, I can smell totalitarianism/fundamentalism. It may be unintentional at first, but I’d argue it’s a dangerous move, especially if ’empirical’ criteria and ‘stages’ are used to take the temperature of parish life. It can easily slip into a ‘zero-tolerance’ mentality. (Michael Voris coming to mind here.)

    To me, to use ‘Weddellianism’ the way it is being used, puts me in mind of the people (‘Spiritual Directors’, dissenters, and Catholic New Agers in general ) in the 70s and 80s who were using James Fowler’s, ‘Stages of Faith’ and ‘the Enneagram’ to profile people’s spiritual lives. Yet, these Catechists (rightly) would condemn these. So why use ‘Forming Intentional Disciples’ in the same way these others used Fowler’s ‘Stages’? It’s very misguided at best, utterly hubristic, at worst.

    These individuals, like the atheists mentioned in the article, need leave the comfort of their own little box and realise there’s a far bigger Catholic picture out there which stems the centuries.

    In a sense, we have to ask, ‘Who the hell is Sherry Weddell?’. By what Authority…? – as we would Richard Dawkins and AC Grayling.

    Teresa of Avila, in her Interior Castle, doesn’t set up ‘percent clubs’ or judge people, so she has my vote. Her criteria are timeless, whereas Weddell’s are, dare I say it, are not only socio-temporally limited, but also for American Culture, not British.

    We have to be very careful between what is descriptive or prescriptive, and not make one into the other. The ‘Weddellians’, I believe, do this very thing, and so enforce 1 year long programmes for Confirmation. However, if one reflects upon this for a second, one realises the course should actually be lifelong and I doubt if anyone would end up being Confirmed… In fact, is anyone rally ever prepared for Confirmation if one uses this ‘sacramental’ view? Do we have to be ‘worthy’ to receive a sacrament? Anyone smell ‘Jansenism’?

    The life of faith is more ‘illative’ than analytic or empirical, and these people, like the atheists, need to get out more, and discover Catholics who aren’t just like themselves, or try to make everyone in their image: the ‘coterie mentality’ as FR Leavis called it.

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