Christ­mas and the post-Catholic atheist

What do for­mer Chris­tians hold dear over the holidays?

4 minute read
Oh come, all ye not-faithful… Enjoying a post-Catholic Christmas in Philly. (Photo by Michelle Nugent.)
Oh come, all ye not-faithful… Enjoying a post-Catholic Christmas in Philly. (Photo by Michelle Nugent.)

Old Joke: what’s a surefire way to ensure children grow up to be atheists? Raise them Catholic. Cue the chagrined grimaces. And here I am, an atheist who was raised Catholic, deep in the latest holiday season.

Any given stereotype has a nugget of truth in it. It would be fair to assume that a queer, feminist, progressive atheist would be scarred by her Catholic upbringing, or at least dismissive of it; but my truth is a lot more complex than that. For me, atheism flowed not from a need to escape a restrictive environment, but from something far more mundane: adolescent boredom. Some kids smoke. Some kids get deep into anime. My rebellion of choice was explorating alternative spirituality.

Doctrine vs. culture

In my twenties, I was comfortable rejecting my past faith, distancing myself as much as possible from the religion I was raised in. But the older I get, the less I find myself with a hardline stance on the subject. I live somewhere in the hazy middle between faith and rejection: I don’t believe in the doctrines, but I am part of Catholic culture.

Ordinarily, this amounts to little more than crossing myself when I hear a siren or praying frantically to St. Anthony when I’m 20 minutes late and can’t find my keys. At the end of the year, with Christmas looming, the nativity scenes and twinkling lights transport me back to a childhood when God and faith were the sun my world orbited around—and it’s not an entirely unwelcome flashback. I’m listening to “O Come All Ye Faithful” as I write, because even after decades away from the Church, its beauty moves me to tears.

A solitary act in a centralized world

Leaving my faith was a solitary act. I no longer consider myself Catholic, but my family still practices. I still carry around Christian privilege; my family festivities are graced by federal holidays. Nobody expects me to justify my entire community when one of us commits an unthinkable act of violence. Atheists are not linked by worship or inherited traditions, but rather by the absence of belief. Atheism gives me intellectual freedom, but very little in the way of community. I’ve tried alternatives such as Unitarian Universalism only to feel that something is inherently missing.

Catholicism is an oddity among religions. The ubiquity and centrality of the Church mean that I can go virtually anywhere in the world and attend Mass in a language I do not speak while understanding virtually everything perfectly. Tragically, that same breadth endows the Church with nearly endless power and tandem corruption. As an institution, the sins committed by those in power are unforgivable and unfixable. Even beyond the pale of global sexual abuse and the hierarchy of cover-ups, the misogyny and homophobia entrenched in the Church’s teachings took me more than a decade to unlearn. I don’t miss the rigidity and the normalization of bigotry that was preached from both the pulpit and the front of the classroom.

When you discard the trappings of faith, you need something in their place. (Photo by Michelle Nugent.)
When you discard the trappings of faith, you need something in their place. (Photo by Michelle Nugent.)

No regret

The Church as an institution and the church as a place of community and spirituality could give you cognitive dissonance. I was taught many harmful things in the course of religious education, but I also learned the sanctity of a life lived in service to others. Bible chapters were the kindling of my love of epic stories and fantasies. Even today, give me a Chosen One with a solid underdog backstory and I’m happy. I was taught to do unto others as I would have done unto me, that good deeds are greater than piety or great intentions. Perhaps I could have learned such lessons in another format, but I learned them behind stained glass in a room that smelled like incense.

Almost as important as the lessons learned were the milestones reached. My Confession, my Communion, my Confirmation, becoming an altar server: nearly every accomplishment of childhood came through the Church. I was a happy kid, and I can’t look back on good memories with regret about the faith that molded them.

Rebirth of the sacred

Catholic belief no longer serves me, but to truly move on, I couldn’t simply excise it from my life. The things that I got from a life of faith were important to my continued happiness and well-being. Leaving traditionally Catholic spaces and rituals meant that I needed to replace them. The library and the local lake became my places for quiet reflection, museums and concert venues my cultural touchstones, and instead of finding wisdom only in the stories I was told, I began writing my own.

And Christmas, I kept. My celebrations are definitively more secular than they used to be, but I’m hardly alone in that. The Christmas Village at City Hall is my place of worship now, as are local tree-lighting ceremonies, but the community and warmth they exude is no less holy than the traditions I was raised with.

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