Cultural Atheism

We have Cultural Christians, Cultural Jews and Cultural Muslisms. Am I a Cultural Atheist?

In Britain and America at least, we’re witnessing a steady decline in faith. This is not, however. an even process. For many a belief in a deity ebbs faster than does the desire to participate in its rituals, uphold the morality of and belong to a particular faith community. As a result there has emerged a significant group of people, who do not believe in the supernatural aspects of the faith they were raised but who still claim allegiance to it. So for example, there is a now a Jewish Cultural Centre in London for people who still feel Jewish but who would feel out of place at a synagogue.

I’m the reverse and therefore a rarity: someone who has raised a non-believer yet converted to a faith. Neither of my parents were believers, and while scouts and Christian friends meant I spent a fair amount of time around churches, I always did so as an outsider. It wasn’t until I started university that I began exploring Christianity and I did that in a rather cerebral manner. I have therefore wound up with a Christian belief system superimposed on top of secular cultural assumptions. I am I suppose a ‘cultural atheist.’

For me at least this seems rather more apt that the usual way to describe converts like me: ‘Born Again Christians.’ Not only is the latter label almost always applied to evangelicals, it’s also inaccurate. My old self was saved rather than obliterated, and it continues to shape me and my faith.

While the stereotypical Born Again Christian is more devout because they don’t take faith for granted, I find the experience of being a convert somewhat akin to being an immigrant. No matter how welcoming my spiritual home is, it’s not effortlessly mine in the way it is for someone who was born in it.

This leaves me somewhat alienated from the rituals of Christianity. I’m pretty ignorant of the hymns. Prayer comes easily when it is spontaneous but bowing my head at an ‘appropriate’ time in a service is usually a prelude to my mind wandering. And any demonstration of faith I consider vulgar awakens my inner Christopher Hitchens.

However, I don’t think this distance from my new faith is a problem. I’ve found that still speaking in an atheist idiom allows me to present Christianity in a way that makes it seem reasonable to unbelievers. It seems that like any other form of migrant, spiritual migrants find ourselves having to straddle two worlds without ever being wholly comfortable in either. But as a compensation for that have the opportunity to bridge that divide.

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