How to Know If You Are A Functional Atheist by: John Basie

How to Know If You Are A Functional Atheist

How do you know if you’re “on mission?”

What? What does that mean?

Having just finished the book Mission-Drift by Peter Greer & Chris Horst, this question has been on my mind for Impact 360 Institute as an organization. It has also raised the question of what being “on mission” means for our students and alumni.

In their chapter entitled “Functional Atheism,” Greer and Horst explain how well intended Christian organizations have a tendency to go soft on their Christian commitment in order to become increasingly palatable to a broader swath of constituents, including donors. Some donors may like the humanitarian efforts of a Christian nonprofit but feel squeamish about the organization’s faith commitment. The temptation is to cave on Christian commitment in order to please the donor so that he will feel ok about writing that generous check. If this is indeed how things play out, the organization is likely operating under “functional atheism,” which means that the outward behavior of the organization is God-less, i.e., there is no observable behavior that would identify the organization as distinctively Christian, even though internally there is (supposedly) a faith commitment. I’ve known of organizations where this kind of duplicitous behavior is standard operating procedure.

The book forced me to ask this question: in what ways, and in what areas of my life might I be functionally atheist? I think of myself as someone who stands unashamedly for the Christian faith and sees all of life through the lens of God’s sovereignty. However, at an unconscious level, in what ways could I be unwittingly sacrificing my faith commitment on the altar of pleasing others—of success? Put another way, to what extent is the idol of success keeping me from being on mission?

Maybe you’re like me in this sense. You see yourself as having a strong faith and even have observable ways of living it out regularly. How would you know if you’re experiencing a kind of personal mission drift, spiritually speaking?

In what ways are you living as a functional atheist without even realizing it?

Psalm 139:23-24 says “Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting!”

The psalmist understood that God was the only one who could accurately discern what was driving him and what his deepest motivations were. He understood that without God’s help, he would live a bifurcated, duplicitous life in ways he didn’t even realize. He knew he would always be on mission, no matter what his tasks were, if God was constantly searching and knowing his heart. If he attempted to lock God out, he would quickly fall “off mission.”

Here are some questions to ask yourself:

  • In what areas of my life do I know I’m not yielding total control to God?
  • To what extent, if I think about it in an intentional way, can I identify areas of my life that I thought were in God’s control, but where I can see moments that I seek to take back that control? And how does that take me off mission?
  • What opportunities lie before me that would encourage me to live out of functional atheism rather than my biblical worldview? Perhaps it is pleasing a non-religious client or a non-religious family member. Maybe it looks like capitulating to the worldview of an atheist or agnostic professor who can ultimately determine my grade in an undergraduate or graduate course. It can even appear in the form of running in a friend group that lives by moral relativism and doesn’t want to hear anything about “objective truth” that would challenge their lifestyle.
  • When I’m tempted to live out of functional atheism, what is going on at my core? Put differently, what is it about my character makeup that so easily puts me in the position of giving up the biblical worldview that I usually live life through?
  • How would I describe the life rhythms I’m in? What habits, if they were to change, would help to solidify the way I live out my biblical worldview and minimize the temptation to live as a functional atheist?