Notes on a Godless Church: Part 1, Functional Atheism and the Unintentional Disenchantment of the Church

In Hunting Magic Eels I share the assessment of Stephen Freeman that many Christians live their lives as "functional atheists." That is to say, we go through the day without ever thinking about God. We don't experience a constant sense of God's presence. Technically, we believe in God, but we don't navigate life using divine coordinates. Given the urgent demands of the day, God is left to the side or relegated to the background. 

In this series, I want to ponder the functional atheism at work in many churches. This series will share reflections on "Godless" Churches, which are, sad to say, increasingly common.

That might seem a very strange claim to make, given how every church is 100% about God. So how could I describe these churches as "Godless," as functionally atheistic?

The phenomenon I want to trace in these posts is how, yes, we do speak about God all of the time, but we tend to unpack that language anthropologically. We're using the word "God" but we're actually talking about ourselves. 

Let me say, though, that I don't think this trend has been intentional. In fact, most people haven't noticed that this has been happening. You might be attending a functionally atheistic church right now and have no idea. But by the end of this series, I hope to show you that functional atheism has been spreading in many churches. Perhaps even your own.

I'd describe what's been going on as the "unintentional disenchantment" of the church. And it happens innocently enough. Specifically, whenever we speak about the life of faith we have, of course, two locations of agency that we can center and highlight. We can speak about God's actions, or we can speak about our actions. Faith is a relationship after all, between God and humanity. And what I'm going to illustrate this series is that when many churches face this choice, they are, increasingly, choosing to talk about our actions rather than God's. Not all the time, of course, but a lot of the time, even most of the time. And here's what happens when we keep making that choice, over and over again, when we keep referring to ourselves: we become functionally atheistic. We're using the word "God," but we never speak of God. We're just speaking about ourselves. 

Over time, this choice becomes a habit, of both mind and speech. We go to church, but only talk about ourselves. And the outcome of this habit is functional atheism, the unintentional disenchanting of the church.

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