I woke up one morning with this phrase on my mind: “Functional Atheist”. To my knowledge, I’d never heard it before, although a quick Google search showed me that it is out there. There are a few sites that give a bullet point list so you can see if you are one or not. The basic premise being that you believe in God, or at least a god, but you live as if you don’t.
These sites gave examples of the classic hypocritical Christian, who shows up for church on Sunday, but then is in the bars, sleeping around, cheating on their taxes, etc., the rest of the time. I can see how this is certainly an example of a functional atheist, but I think that it can also be much more subtle than this.
I think, that like many aspects of your Christian journey, you find that the further on you go, the less the “big” things are a problem. But, the “small” ones are revealed since they don’t hide in the shadows of the “big” ones any more. Why the “quotes” here? Because relative terms like that are, I’m convinced, a human invention. And one that enables us to look at ourselves with sanctimonious self-righteousness like the Pharisees of old. And, yes, I used us deliberately there. “Because,” we say to ourselves, “at least I’m not like that person, or those people, because I don’t do anything as bad as they do…” Sigh. I’m not sure, but it may be that God dislikes our smugness even more than blatant sin. He has a lot more work to do for us to recognize that we need Him.
I grew up in church, and was always a kid who wanted to do well and not get into trouble. I do have a bit of a rebellious streak, I’m finding that it’s growing as I age, not decreasing. But it’s related more to wanting to be authentically me, than just rebellion for the sake of “you can’t make me”. So, the “big” sins never held a lot of attraction for me. I’m one who looks ahead, and even when I was young, I had a strong sense that those activities were not going to get me where I wanted to go. I also began my relationship with Christ at a young age, and it was a real one. So, I’ve not generally been accused of being a hypocrite…maybe a religious snob, but I was that all the time, and not just on Sundays or at church.
There are always upsides and down sides to anything, and, although the upside of being a “good kid” is that I was saved a lot of grief and consequences of bad choices, I was also able to do that largely on my own. I didn’t have to rely on God’s strength and provision. Or at least so far as I knew. I’m now convinced that God protected me from a lot more than I ever suspected, because my heart’s desire was to be what He wanted me to be.
But, the more subtle indications that there were areas of my life in which I was functioning as an atheist, were revealed, and are still being revealed, often by random comments by others. When I was quite a bit younger, I met some people who took God at his Word. They believed that if God said it, than He must mean it. To state it like that, of course I would have said that’s what I believed, but to see someone apply it to their lives in real and pertinent ways? Amazing! I began to read the Bible through new eyes, intent on discovering if this could be true.
Another example of this, was during a small group of some sort. I don’t remember now if it was Sunday School, or Bible Study, or what, but if you’ve been in the church for any length of time, you’re probably familiar with the prayer request time. You go around the room and mention what your prayer need is and often someone writes them down so that in due course, each need is, in fact, mentioned in prayer. We went around the room, stated our requests, and then one of the girls was asked to pray. Instead of duly reciting the list so that God could hear them, she said something to the effect that we are now bringing these requests to you and know that you will be faithful to answer. The mind blowing revelation to me? God was listening the whole time, not just when we were praying! Crazy!
Now, obviously, I knew both that God means what He says, and that He is everywhere all of the time theoretically, but they weren’t a part of my actual reality. I was, in fact, functioning as an atheist in those areas. And there are many others I could mention, and still more I’ll learn as I go, I’m sure, because I’m now on the look out for such things.
I’ve observed functional atheism most recently in what I call the “superstitions” of prayer. We humans are ever so fond of formulas, and we look for them everywhere. One that seems to be quite popular is partly a recognition that we are created in the likeness of God, and that our words have power. So far, so good. Life and death is in the power of the tongue, okay, got that. What happens, though, is that people fall into the extreme of saying that if I say that I’ve been diagnosed with cancer, or have a disability, or am sick, that I am claiming that and thus it is going to be a manifest reality in my life. I’ve said it, therefore, God can’t do anything about it now. The amount of verbal gymnastics that people go through to avoid speaking the words cancer, disability, sickness, etc., over themselves is mind boggling! It becomes the “Unspeakable Curse” and all who say it will die. No. Just no.
“Fear of the name increases fear of the thing itself.” is said in JK Rowlings books about a boy named Harry. Although these stories are fiction, that statement is one of remarkable truth. I have to wonder, as you fear to speak the word cancer, disability, or whatever it might be; exactly what or who is bigger? Cancer? Or God? I know that you know the pat Sunday school answer. God is, of course, much bigger than anything, if you believe in him at all. But when it comes right down to being faced with a difficult circumstance, is that a reality in your life? Is God really real to you? To me? Or are we functioning as atheists in this area of our lives?
I also see this, and have experienced this in other ways. We know that God is always speaking to us. We know that He can speak to us in a variety of ways. But, there is always that startled realization that He IS speaking through this new thing over here. We are so fond of the question of “Why?” I’m beginning to wonder if the more pertinent question is “Why not?” Is there any pertinent precedence in Scripture that forbids whatever it is? If so, then it is wisdom to take heed and keep clear. If not, then is my reluctance to accept whatever it is, because I don’t really believe that God could or would do whatever it is? He can’t use a painting to minister to my heart. He can’t use music that sounds like that. He can’t leave treasures for me to find when I’m out for a walk. Oh, but what if He can? What if I realize that God is alive and active ALL around me?
What would it look like to not have any area in which I’m functioning as an atheist? To be honest, I’m not entirely certain. Jesus is, of course, the pat Sunday School answer, and it is true. He had a complete awareness f the Father during his time on the earth. He said that he only did what he saw the father doing (John 5:19-20) and said what the Father was saying (John 12:49). What does that look like for me and for you? Today…Tomorrow…in this situation or at work or at the store or…? That, my friends, is where the adventure begins! Are we willing to take his hand and follow him where ever he leads us?