Atheists Are in the Game of Orthdoxy

The Friendly Atheist wrote late last year that “Survey Says Catholics Are Becoming Less Catholic.” A friend of mine shared it on Facebook and spurred a debate between me and him: I thought it was ironic that atheists would engage in a game of Catholic orthodoxy—drawing boundaries around what counts as authentic Catholicism and what does not.

That this author was engaging in orthodoxy games is evident in the title; the idea that Catholics are becoming less Catholic implies that there is a Catholic ideal from which there is a growing distance.

In addition, the author of the blog writes,

Do Catholics understand that they’re supposed to believe the bread and wine actually become the body and blood of Christ?

50% of Catholics don’t even know that. They think it’s only symbolic. In other words, half the Catholics in America don’t know one of the most important beliefs about their own faith.

The first sentence is interesting: Catholics are “supposed” to believe in the doctrine of transubstantiation. But why? According to what authorities? Perhaps according to the authority of the Catholic church in Rome—which is precisely the authority this atheist presumably rejects. The sentence only makes sense if this atheist accepts the authority of the Catholic church.

The last sentence is also highly problematic. It seems to be saying: this is a part of Catholic faith that Catholics don’t have faith in. The claim makes no sense unless we posit a “real,” “authentic” or ideal form of Christianity. But where does this “authentic” form of Christianity exist? How can we account for it without positing a supernatural essence? Has this atheist swapped one set of supernatural entities for another?

On one level it’s somewhat ironic to me that atheists would be in the game of Catholic orthodoxy; on another level it makes perfect sense: by imagining the boundaries of Catholic orthodoxy in such narrow terms, these atheists can claim those rendered “unorthodox” as on their own side of the boundary marker—making it the case that atheism is winning the battle of attrition with the “authentic” Catholic church. This is clearly what’s at stake, as the author concludes:

It also means those of us who criticize the Church, point out the obvious lies, mock the silly beliefs, castigate the Church for its moral failings, and make the case for secular alternatives to the supposed “benefits” of religion are doing a wonderful job.

We still have a long way to go but it’s wearing off on a lot of Catholics.

Eventually, maybe they’ll muster up the courage to shed the label entirely.

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9 Responses to Atheists Are in the Game of Orthdoxy

  1. Cris says:

    Nice points. When I saw the title I assumed the post would address arguments about the parameters of “atheism.” These arguments definitely smack of orthodoxy, with “devout” atheists trying to say who is in and who is out. They exclude lots of people who consider themselves “atheists” and argue endlessly about “true” or “pure” atheism. Last year, John Wilkins over at Evolving Thoughts (blog) did a really nice post on the subject, and subjected the various possible definitions to a logicist examination.

  2. Steven Ramey says:

    “Authentic” Catholicism often exists in religion classroom presentations and world religion texts. In my seminar this week, I found myself falling back on simplified discussions of Chinese religions at points to help some students understand the assertions about boundaries presented in Journey to the West.

  3. I am very glad that most people don’t truly believe what their orthodox specialists may like them to believe – religious and atheist. Few people are theologians or philosophers — they are trying to work things out on the ground.

    • Steven Ramey says:

      The irony is that, while most people work out their ideas and practices “on the ground” (and have done so for millennia), public discourse, including many academic representations, set the orthodox constructions as the basic image of each religion, as Craig references in the post. What influence does the pervasive orthodox discourse have on people’s responses to others who identify with their own religion or another religion?

  4. Jack Laughlin says:

    And the atheists engage in orthodxy games not only with respect to doctrine, Catholic or otherwise, but especially with respect to the nature, contents and meaning of religious texts, in a sort of sola scriptura or fundamentalist mode that is quite extraordinary.

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