The Humanist Dilemma: Is There Such a Thing As a Godless Religious Fanatic?

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What’s God Got to Do with It? My brother-in-law has always been very committed to the faith he and my sister practice. But for several years, he’s been extremely angry with God for several major disappointments in his life that he feels were undeserved because he’d always been so good. Recently, he declared that he no longer believes in God, but he’s just as religiously committed as ever. Not only does he still show up at his “house of God” and give generously to religious charities, he also won’t attend interfaith weddings and complains that the offspring of such unions will be “nothing.” Worse, he still pushes my wife and me toward religion, including telling us to switch our kids to parochial school—which, while agreeable to her, is anathema to me. I want the kids in secular schools, I hope they’ll be humanist adults, and I support both nondenominational and atheist causes. I really wish my brother-in-law would just shut up, as there’s already enough religious conflict in our household without him weighing in. Is he as crazy as I think?

—Not Making Sense

Dear Sense,

Could be your brother-in-law is just seeing the light at his own pace. For most people, the religion they’re raised in has a grip on them way beyond the God/faith component and in subconscious recesses where logic and reason don’t reach. It’s all about culture, family, tradition and customs, loyalty, and identity. Just because he no longer believes in God doesn’t mean he’s no longer a committed member of the group he’s devoted his life to. It’s understandable if he’s not ready to excommunicate himself, especially if it’s his primary community.

Ask yourself too: How many supposedly religious people really believe the fundamental articles of their faith? Do you think Stephen Colbert (or most liberal Catholics for that matter) literally believes he’s drinking the blood and eating the flesh of Christ? Yet, on Sundays, after poking fun at the pope or Mike Pence on his TV show during the previous week, he not only goes to Mass with his family, he’s even been known to teach Sunday school.

Research shows that increasing numbers of people are checking off “none” on surveys of religious affiliation, but many of them still profess belief in some kind of god. Your brother-in-law is doing the converse, putting an adamant checkmark in the box next to his religion, even though he believes God has left the building. It’s like taking Christ out of Easter—people still love the decorated shells even though there may not be any egg within.

You might want to suggest that your brother-in-law get some therapy for the deep-seated anger and disappointment he’s only just begun to address. And you might ask him to stop pushing his godless religion on your family or you will push your devout atheism on him. Hopefully, in time he’ll see the folly of expecting God to reward him for his faith and will find community elsewhere. But don’t hold your breath, and try to keep him out of business that belongs between you and your wife.