Believers and church folk in particular are notorious for looking down their long noses in disgust at anything that falls outside their standards of acceptability. We’ve been called judgmental, bigoted, holier-than-thou, Monday morning quarterbacks, and a whole host of other things. If we’re even slightly honest, we’ve deserved much the criticism. We also fail to see that many of the same people we chastise are those who have left the Church over the same kind of nastiness that now is directed at them! As someone who did not grow up in the church, I’ve seen it and even now check my own attitudes for this arrogance and pride.
My rant on atheism might seem like much of the same. Here is the pastor, standing up high and holy on his God soapbox, condemning non-belief and even non-believers. But I want to be clear that my comments were directed at a school of thought (atheism), not atheists, themselves. Out of my concern for them, I mourn the effects of atheism within the people who prescribe to it, but it’s not for me or anyone else to castigate atheists as people.
But to further distance myself from finger-pointing at atheists– to borrow an overly used cliche– I want to “look at the fingers pointing back” at us believers. From my experience as a disciple of Jesus and as a pastor, I see an alarming level of atheism at work in the church and in individual believers, myself included at times. We often talk a good game about God, God’s power, God’s faithfulness, and God’s mercy, but if you look at our actions and attitudes, you’re not apt to find a faithful reflection of our words. We sing about God’s mercy and forgiveness, but we often live a life of works righteousness, striving to prove our goodness to God while beating up ourselves and carelessly judging others. We “amen” God’s amazing and abundant gifts and blessings, but then we limit ourselves to the human constraints of budgets and circumstances, only accomplishing what we ourselves think we’re capable of doing. We revel in God’s sovereignty and mastery over all things, but choose and live as if everything is still up to us, our strength, our wisdom, our creativity. In other words, we live as if there is no God.
Someone, and I’m not sure who, once brilliantly called this kind of disbelief “functional atheism.” Simply put, it’s functioning as if there is no God, living in practice as an atheist. 2 Timothy 3:5 calls this “holding to the outward form of godliness but denying its power” (NRSV). Or as the Lord laments in the book of Isaiah, “These people come near to me with their mouth and honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me” (Isaiah 29:13, NIV). Either way, our failure to live in faith and practice what we profess makes us no better than atheists. In fact, we could argue that atheists have more integrity than some believers do!
Our functional atheism, however, is far more significant than a topic of conversation (or a blog!). It has badly damaged the soul of the Church, stunting our power, effectiveness, and sincerity. Just as ancient Israel turned to idols when they lost hope in God, we turn to our own idols of rugged individualism, self-sufficiency, power over others, empiricism, hunger for wealth, and more. In none of these things will we find God, and yet we cling to them just as a non-believing world does. In an effort to be relevant, the Church embraced the principles of modernity only to find ourselves exiled into irrelevance in a post-modern world. No wonder the church in North America finds itself in steep decline. Among other root causes, our functional atheism lies within the heart of it.
We need a new generation of disciples who will live unswervingly according to the teachings of Jesus. Within him and his followers has been a life-giving, world-changing, God-glorifying powerful grace that could easily transform cynicism towards what the world calls “organized religion.” Otherwise, we will continue to see a rise of atheism and another phenomenon I call post-Christian agnosticism (a topic for another blog, I suppose.) In the mean time, I leave you with this thought as a challenge for all of us believers:
It could very well be that most of the atheism we find in our post-Christian world traces its origins back to the functional atheism of God’s own people.