What Religious Membership Means

When I was growing up and attending church with my family, part of every mass was reciting the Nicene Creed, a list of the Catholic church's basic beliefs. Everyone would stand and together recite these somewhat poetic words in a rhythm which I initially found soothing. Yet as I grew older, and understood that this was a weekly declaration of our beliefs, I began to analyze the prayer. Did I actually believe every line of the Nicene Creed? And could I call myself a Catholic if I didn't?

There are many aspects of religion that I find difficult to understand. But one that often seems the most perplexing to me is the basic idea of what it actually means to be a member of a specific religion. In observing other people, it seems that religiosity falls along a continuum with extreme fundamentalists at one end, atheists at the other and varying levels of belief in between.

Perhaps the line between fundamentalists and atheists would be filled with many vague levels of religious behavior and belief. Using Catholicism as an example, some points along the spectrum might be something like:
  • Those who attend mass at least once a week, observe all the Holy Days and believe in everything the Pope/Church decrees. 
  • Those who attend mass weekly and on major holidays, but might disagree with the Church on some issues, such as birth control or gay rights. 
  • Those who attend mass sporadically or only on major holidays, but think that many of the Church's policies are outdated and easily discarded while still being Catholic.
  • Those who no longer attend mass, and question or disagree with many of the Church's policies and positions, yet still consider themselves to be Catholic because they've been through the Sacraments of Initiation
  • Those who know they technically don't believe in most of the Catholic tenets, but still attend mass and "play along" to keep up social or familial expectations, or because they think "good people go to church."
Yet, is this really how religion is designed to work?

An exploration of major world religions shows that each has its own basic tenets which all members are expected to believe. Continuing with the example of Catholicism, the Nicene Creed is a summary of the religion's basic tenets. It states beliefs in the Holy Trinity (the Father, Son and Holy Spirit); Jesus' virginal birth, death, resurrection and ascension; the second coming of Jesus (Judgement Day, End Times, etc.); the power of the Holy Catholic Church; and the communion with saints.

Can someone truly call themselves Catholic if they don't believe in every point of the Nicene Creed? Are they still Catholic if they disagree with the policies and decrees of the Pope/Catholic Church?

In 2010, the U.S. Religious Knowledge Survey, conducted by Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, showed that most Americans believe in god, despite having little understanding of religious tenets -- including those of their own faith. This is the kind of belief that confuses me. How do believers claim to be members of a religion if they don't know (or disagree with) the tenets of that religion?

Atheists are often accused of attempting to destroy the faith of believers. I for one have no interest in convincing anyone to give up their religion. However, I would like to see more people take the time to question and understand the religion with which they are affiliated, especially when they look to their religious leaders for moral, social or political guidance.

1 comment:

  1. Hello. I was a convinced atheist for over 15 years. During that time, I studied neuroscience and earned a law degree. Like you, I rejected Catholicism in part because the people who seemed to take it seriously never seemed to have a real passion for understanding why they were there. Then, in my 37th year, something amazing happened to me. It dawned on me that my life was quite empty of joy and meaning. I walked into an ultra-orthodox Latin Mass church, got on my knees and asked for insight and forgiveness. Suddenly, I felt this incredible feeling and I began to cry during the mass. This feeling has stayed with me for months. It had transformed my whole sense of existence. Within a few weeks I went to confession (a long one) and began to receive the Eucharist. The whole center of my life refocused on what I must do to become a saint. I do not mean that flippantly either. I am trying to learn how to love totally, forgive completely, give abundantly, forgo sexual gratification, fast regularly and pray daily, and let God's grace disintegrate my egotistical need to control others. And what I can tell you is that I am getting happier everyday. Now, I do not suppose I could convince you to give up your atheist beliefs just because I did, and doing so made me happy. But I will challenge your idea that the opposite of an atheist is a fundamentalist. The opposite of an atheist is a saint, or at least someone who aspires to be a saint. If someone seriously aspires to be fully aware of God's presence, they loosen the hold of fear in their life and seek only to know/experience God and love others... most especially sinners and people who are lost in confusion and sadness. Being an atheist for many years can actually be a great asset for people who deeply desire to live this way. They simply turn a lot of their old thinking on its head. Their passion for truth stops being a passion for collecting small facts or controlling people through opinion, and it becomes a passion for experiencing Being in its fullness, including the a tangible connection with others however small, or strange, or disfigured, or morally damaged. When I read your posts Susan, I truly sense that if you set your mind to prayer and devotion, you could be transformed a very fine saint. But first you would have to accept God's will into your life with sincere remorse and openness to wonder. Turn off the distractions, the intellectual puzzles of doubt and shame, and give real joy a chance. I really hope you'll consider it.