To Be or Not Be Catholic, and Atheist

The stonework of the vast interior, made to seem even larger by the emptiness of the high, rounded ceiling, creates a cavernous feeling. But the darkness of the stone is interrupted by colorful, translucent light, creating a sense of jeweled infinity beyond the opaque and impenetrable rock. It serves as a visual metaphor of our hope that life, beyond its impenetrable mysteries, is something more. The dark austerity of the daily grind is, we desire, underpinned by something bright and beautiful.

One feels so small and insignificant in a cathedral; and yet, there is intimacy. Watching over the visitors are marbled figures. Some have wings; others have crowns; and there are even those with but simple garb, an unadorned cassock, and serene, knowing expression. They look like us – they have human form – but their strange dress speaks of another world. And their wings, halos, crosses, and crowns tell us that their lives, unlike ours, are anything but ordinary.

These saints, angels, Madonnas, and Christs – whether child, man, or risen Lord – inhabit two worlds: Heaven and Earth. Through these intercessors and intermediaries, the worshipper believes that the promise of rescue from this world through eternal salvation will be granted.

The bright colors and intricate details of the icons frozen in the stained glass windows and painted on the ceiling command the attention of anyone venturing inside. They illustrate the ancient stories we know well – God’s plan for the salvation of the human race as revealed in His Holy Word. The cathedral itself is one giant icon, with the apse at the head, the nave toward the bottom, and the transepts on each side, forming a cross.

Whether a believer or not, the terrible beauty of a cathedral inspires awe. But more so for the believer, for whom the cathedral creates a deep emotional connection to the stories that form her or his worldview.

That worshippers would expend such immense time, energy, and valuable resources to build a cathedral, especially in a time of scarcity such as the Middle Ages, speaks to the power of faith.

Even if such faith is firmly rejected by some, the emotional intensity of this rejection – indeed, the revulsion some might feel – only serves to emphasize the deep chord religious belief strikes in the human heart.

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I haven’t been a practicing Catholic for almost 20 years.  At age 18 I decided that I couldn’t become a priest because I didn’t have the absolute certainty that the infallibility of Catholic doctrine requires. Essential doctrines such as the Trinity, incarnation, and so on can’t be mostly infallible – it’s all or nothing.

I became a non-literalist, continuing a sort-of belief in God, which I thought of as a mythopoetic personification of ultimate reality, whatever that might be; an image human beings created as a stand-in for this giant existential question mark.

Over time I decided that deep mythopoetic thoughts are far less important than the way I choose to live my life, and admitting that really I think materialism is all there is to reality, sealed my fate as an atheist.

Still, being Catholic will always be part of who I am, even if I haven’t gone to church in years.  And constantly rallying against the Catholic Church, which became so much easier after the sexual abuse scandal, can only become destructive because such opposition means fighting a part of who I am.

But being an atheist is a larger part of who I am. And that is why I am not Catholic.

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So What If It’s the Opium of the People?

What does a priest do if he’s lost his faith, but the people of his parish need him? Pretend. Because actions matter more than belief.

So concludes Miguel de Unamuno in his 1930 short story, San Manuel Bueno, mártir.

The people of a small Spanish village believe their priest, Don Manuel, is a saint.

Por todos mostraba el mismo afecto, y si a algunos distinguía más con él era a los más desgraciados y a los que aparecían como más díscolos.

He treated everyone with equal kindness, and if he showed any preference it was for the most unfortunate and those who seemed most rebellious.

Angela is a young woman whose faith is made strong by Fr. Manuel’s example. But her brother Lázaro is an atheist. When he returns to Spain from America, Angela introduces him to Fr. Manuel hoping for a conversion.

But that’s not exactly what happens.

Lázaro shares his unbelief, and to his surprise Fr. Manuel admits that he too is an unbeliever.

Realizing that life is meaningless, which Fr. Manuel says is like seeing the face of God (which the Bible says will kill you), is too difficult for people to face. Faith is the consolation of life (Fe en el consuelo de la vida). Belief makes people happy, and to take that away would destroy them.

Fr. Manuel believes in love – that’s why he can’t believe a just God would condemn some people to hell. And with that doubt went the rest of theology.

Referencing Karl Marx’s statement that religion is the opium of the people, Fr. Manuel remarks,

“Opio… Opio… Opio, sí. Démosle opio, y que duerma y que sueñe.”

“Opium… Opium …Opium, yes, let’s give them opium, and let them sleep and dream.”

…yo le decía: “Pero ¿es usted, usted, el sacerdote, el que aconseja que finja?”

I said to him, “Is this you, you, the priest advising me to pretend?”

“…poca teología; religión, religión.”

“…very little theology; religion, religion.”

Relating the story to his sister, Lázaro tells her,

“…es un santo, hermana, todo un santo. No trataba, al emprender ganarme para su santa causa…arrogarse un triunfo, sino que lo hacía por la paz, por la felicidad…”

“…he is a saint, sister, a true saint. When he set out to win me to his holy cause…he was not trying to secure a triumph for himself but was doing it for the peace of mind, for the happiness…”

Reflecting on this later, Angela wonders if Fr. Manuel’s acts of love were acts of theology (si es que no era también teología lo nuestro). As Unamuno remarks in the author’s note,

Habrían creído a sus obras y no a sus palabras, porque las palabras no sirven para apoyar las obras, sino que las obras se bastan.

They would have believed their works and not their words, because words cannot confirm works, but works stand by themselves.

This short story raises many questions.

Was Fr. Manuel really as selfless as Angela thought?

The risk of a priest coming out as an atheist in a traditional culture a century ago was far greater than 21st century America. Was Fr. Manuel’s perspective really just a selfish rationalization to avoid losing his status in society?

Of course, it may have been more. As Fr. Manuel remarks at one point, “persecutions more often come from a persecution complex than from any persecutor” (“las más de la persecuciones son efecto más de la manía persecutoria que no de la perseguidora.”). Every atheist knows that merely being out of the closet is enough to trigger the Christian persecution complex, but in Fr. Manuel’s day that could have gotten him killed.

Other questions include:

Can meaning only come from God; and if so, how do we explain the meaning atheists experience in their lives?

Is it true that the villagers would not have been able to handle a thoughtful discussion about God’s existence? Is Fr. Manuel patronizing them?

Even if the villagers are simpletons who can’t handle thoughtful discussions, and who need religious belief to dull the pain of life, is Fr. Manuel’s deceit nonetheless unjustified?

Even though Lázaro is an atheist, does he continue to be so culture bound that he still must idolize a priest and not question him? In other words, is Lázaro’s pretend faith really just another type of blind faith?

As an atheist ex-Catholic who once wanted to be a priest, I obviously made different choices. But I wholeheartedly agree that words (theology) are empty – it’s actions that reveal what you really believe.

English translation by Paul Burns and Salvator Ortiz-Carboneres.