"I feel a similar ambivalence regarding the religious elements of Obama's beautiful speech. I am drawn-in by the poetry of his scriptural references, and I am powerfully moved by the image of a celestial Christina jumping in heavenly puddles. I can see that Obama's faith provides him with both courage and hope - essential qualities in a leader facing dark times - and I am challenged by the thought that much atheist writing provides neither. Yet I recognize, too, that I cannot join the ranks of Americans bending knee to pray while remaining true to my beliefs, to myself. I must express my shock and sadness in another way. I'm standing outside the church, my face pressed against the stained-glass windows, longing for solidarity with those inside, but unable to cross the threshold."I like the fact that Croft feels, at worst, left out, and not incensed. There was nothing to be incensed by. The speech had the right elements to console those most in need of consolation. Period.
But now, what about standing outside "with face pressed against the stained-glass windows, longing for solidarity with those inside, but unable to cross the threshold"? My reaction is--what's the problem? Just go in.
I mean that quite literally. Just go in. Perhaps that's an impossibility for Croft because he's a Christian atheist, not a Jewish atheist--and yes (surprise, surprise) there really is a difference. For Christians and former Christians, religion is all about belief. There are creeds and confessions and things you've got to believe so you can have eternal life, and I suppose if you're not on board, you must feel like a terrible impostor. For Jews, it's not like that. Yes, strictly speaking there is stuff Jews believe. In fact, I have a book called What Jews Believe. But Jews don't necessarily believe that stuff. And they're not less Jewish for being non-believers.
In Jewish congregations it's very easy to find atheists, and agnostics, even among the high and mighty and influential. I have known people who even converted to Judaism without believing in God--being in fact flat out atheists. And they still participate, and still find it meaningful. Kids can go through bar and bat mitzvahs (happily!) without believing. Their parents can stand up in front of the congregation, doing their part in the bar/bat mitzvah service, and say "I don't believe" -- I've seen it with my own eyes. Even rabbis can be non-believers. It is OK--really OK--to be a non-believer and be part of a religious congregation.
But Christian atheists seem to not "get" this as an option. Yes, there are aspects of Judaism that are distinctive. But the essence of the thing is not. I don't see why you can't find the experience of being part of a church enriching, without believing in the basic tenets of the faith. You might just like the sense of a refuge from everyday life, the aesthetics of the sanctuary, the feeling of harmony you get from singing and even from standing up and sitting down together (Jonathan Haidt talks about that in The Happiness Hypothesis), the focus on life, death, meaning, and values. If you pick the right church, there will be nothing ethically problematic about the messages, nothing hostile to science. Nobody has to like this sort of thing, of course, but it's not foreclosed as an option for non-believers.
Croft sees it as foreclosed perhaps because he's troubled by a certain notion of pluralism. As he explains, the pluralist writer Diana Eck thinks pluralism means putting God-the-sun at the center of the universe, and seeing other religions as planets orbiting around him/her/it. Members of different religions all seek God, "through different trajectories and paths." Croft says "there's no room for atheists in this solar system." I suppose, to him, crossing the threshold would mean joining a God-centered solar system, revolving around a non-existent sun. It wouldn't make any sense.
But no--that's not how you have to think about entering a church or synagogue. A believer might want to think about members of different religions, and even non-believers, as revolving around God, but obviously a skeptic won't buy into that image. In fact, the image isn't even compulsory for believers. Pluralism can be nothing but the notion that different religions (and non-religions) are wise in different ways. They all have their insights. This is something you can believe without taking any of the supernaturalism seriously.
Actually, that ought to be obvious. There is wisdom and beauty in the Iliad and the Odyssey, even if there's no Zeus and Athena, and there never was a Trojan War, and some of the moral messages of the books are atrocious (like how Achilles and Agamemnon--heroes!--fight over who gets to rape (yes, rape) Briseis. There is wisdom and beauty in the bible, and the Talmud, and the writings of later sages, and the same goes for religious traditions I'm not a part of.
Can religious folk accept a pluralism along those lines, instead of presuming that their God is the center of everyone's religious experience? They actually can. In fact, the rabbi at a friend's synagogue gave a sermon last night about what we can learn from members of other faiths, including from atheists. There was no presumptuous stuff about how everyone else is really (without knowing it) revolving around our God. My son went, listened to this message, and I'm confident he got something positive out of it, even though he's adamantly a non-believer.
So: no need for standing out in the cold. I believe there are (formerly) Christian atheists who see things the same way--perhaps gravitating toward the Unitarian church. There's really no need to stand out in the cold, if you're attracted to the this-worldly elements of religious experience.