January 12, 2020

Is There Such a Thing as Catholic Atheists?

Catholic smoke

Never having been a Catholic myself, I figured I better put this out as a question rather than pretending I know the answer: are there Catholic atheists? I ask because I recently saw a Satanist claiming that atheism had nothing to do with religion and that anyone could be an atheist. I did not flinch when Buddhists were mentioned, but I was not prepared for this to be followed by mention of Roman Catholics. Isn't believing in god(s) a central part of Catholicism? Can someone really be both an atheist and a Catholic in any meaningful sense?

I understand that ex-Catholics could be atheists, but they are no longer Catholics. I also understand that an atheist could decide that they liked certain parts of Catholicism and adopt them, but that wouldn't make them a Catholic. It would just make them an atheist who appreciated some aspects of the Catholic faith. We might choose to refer to them as "cultural Catholics," but I think that's different. I'm not sure how someone could be a Catholic atheist.

Some, and I really want to emphasize the word some here, of the Satanists I encounter on Twitter seem to have idiosyncratic definitions of atheism, religion, and even Satanism. From what I can remember, the point this person was trying to make was that Satanism is a religion but that doesn't mean atheists cannot be Satanists. I agree with this since most Satanists are atheistic (i.e., they do not believe in gods or a literal Satan), but Satanism is not the same thing as Catholicism. Catholicism and most other forms of Christianity differ from atheistic Satanism in that they are explicitly theistic. The reason that Satanism, Buddhism, and some other religions can be reconciled with atheism is that they are non-theistic. I don't think Catholicism is non-theistic. At least, I am not familiar with non-theistic Catholicism.

I wish that fewer atheistic Satanists felt like they had to defend what they are doing. I see no problem reconciling non-theistic forms of Satanism with atheism and claiming that the result is a religion of some sort if that is what one wants to do. I do worry, though, that when we start talking about "Catholic atheists," we're contributing to confusion about the meaning of atheism. Seeing as how much confusion there already is, that's probably not a great idea.

Of course, I also recognize that I might be wrong. Perhaps there really are Catholic atheists. If so, I trust that you'll set me straight and I'll learn something.