Bart Everson is a “religious atheist.”
Yes, he knows it sounds like an oxymoron, but he’s fine with that.
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. The Catholic Church has the power to do a lot of good, but it doesn’t mean we should ignore or downplay all of its very obvious problems.
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