Practicing Christians Who Don’t Believe

Most of us have probably wondered why people who clearly do not believe in Catholicism choose to remain within the Church, actively working to undermine its doctrines, structures, and practices. I have thought of more and more such reasons as time has gone on, some of whose validity has recently been confirmed by my reading of a novel which celebrates an Anglican priestess’s entry into a lesbian relationship following her rejection of belief in God.

The book is Aftershocks. Its author, A.N. Wilson, a one-time student for the Anglican priesthood who rose to prominence leading the “Young Fogey” movement’s defense of traditional aesthetics, went through an atheist phase and returned to some form of professedly Christian belief which he seems to be again abandoning. From a purely technical artistic point of view, Aftershocks is well constructed. Its attempt to present a case against religion is worse than inane, resting on arguments refuted by even the most basic works of apologetics: asserting that it is a contradiction to believe that God can at the same time be omnipotent, be loving and permit evil; using circular logic to dispute the Bible’s reliability on the basis of an assumption that the supernatural does not exist; alleging that “sexual repression” is responsible for the molestation of children; and claiming Christianity teaches that “God wants gay people to go to hell” without distinguishing involuntary between attraction and voluntary acts.

What is of interest are the reasons why the character Nellie Digby held the foregoing beliefs as a liberal Anglican priestess for so long before accepting their incompatibility with Christianity. They come down to a mixture of tribalism, aesthetics, and nostalgia. Her father and uncle were both High Church Anglican clergymen. She loved the rituals (ritually high, theologically liberal Anglicans are not uncommon). She had always been part of a religious organization whose members self-deprecatingly referred to themselves as “the chosen frozen.” She loved Anglicanism because it was the religion of great literary figures—Samuel Johnson, Jane Austen, and T.S. Eliot—rather than because she was convinced by the theological arguments of Richard Hooker, Lancelot Andrewes, William Laud, or Edward Pusey. However, all her love was for what Wilson calls “the benign version of Anglicanism which is embodied in the musical settings of Evensong and in Victorian Gothic architecture” while at the same time asking, “Are those patriarchal values [the doctrine of male priesthood and exaltation of the virginity of Our Lady] any less ugly because they are set to beautiful music?”

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Of course, “conservative” Christians who believe in the “one true faith” are those more typically accused of tribalism, and it is Christians who combine “conservative” doctrine with high liturgical ritualism who are commonly accused of aestheticism. In reality, the shoe fits better on the other foot.

Belief that one’s religion is the only true faith is an intellectually serious position, regardless of whether the belief is true or false in regard to a particular religion. Such a belief not only recognizes that any given religious doctrine is either correct or erroneous, it also realizes that a true religion is universal, i.e., that the truth of a true religion must be recognized by all.

Tribal adherence to a particular religion is the precise opposite and is not grounded in the belief that a particular religion is universally valid. Rather, it is an attachment to a particular religion which can be compared to attachments to one’s family, to the social customs of one’s home region, or to a local sports team. These latter attachments are rightly considered a form of legitimate tribal preference, intellectual maturity telling us that they are often no better than competing alternatives. Immature people assume they are somehow superior merely because of their personal, tribal associations rather than because of the ways in which they are, in some cases, objectively superior. To treat religious membership as tribal in this way is not only not mature but the height of intellectual immaturity. Membership in a religious body cannot be a matter of preference or simple tribal membership. Either one’s religion is the only true religion (in which case all should belong to it) or else it is a false religion (in which case one should leave it).

Tribal separation of religious membership from religious truth correlates with the liturgical aesthete’s separation of religious ritual from its purpose. Of course, few Catholics are liturgically high and theologically liberal. Furthermore, there are some Catholics who are truly preoccupied with high ritual (such as those for whom even a Tridentine Low Mass is barely tolerable and only suitable for situations when a High Mass is impractical). But I have yet to meet Catholics who cross the line by overemphasizing or exaggerating the importance of high ceremonies to the point that they lose sight of their purpose altogether.

It is, rather, the modernist who treats his preferred liturgical ceremonies as ends in themselves. In this the modernist is the exact opposite of extreme Low Church Protestants. Extreme Low Church Protestants deny that the outward sign brings about a spiritual reality and, in consequence, reject the outward sign in the belief that they can have the spiritual reality without it. The modernist denies that the outward sign brings about a spiritual reality but keeps the outward sign anyway, embracing symbolism for its own sake or because it is “existentially meaningful.” This, and not the love of high ritual aimed at spiritual realities, is the self-indulgent love of ceremony for its own sake which also marks the liturgical aesthete.

Much in Wilson’s book is to be deplored, but it is to be commended for its willingness to honestly face the fact that attempting to synthesize Christian beliefs with those of the “modern” secular, liberal world is merely an incoherent attempt to square the circle. One can only wish more members of the Catholic hierarchy were as realistic.


  • James Baresel

    James Baresel is a freelance writer. Publications for which he has written include Tudor Life, Catholic World Report, American History, Fine Art Connoisseur, Military History, Catholic Herald, Claremont Review of Books, Adoremus Bulletin, New Eastern Europe and America’s Civil War.

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