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Illustration by Krieg Barrie

Practical atheism

Better to abandon the Christian label than make it meaningless

Issue: "Geo-gizmos," April 25, 2009

"Hypocrisy in one Age," warned Joseph Addison, "is generally succeeded by Atheism in another." Consider this in light of charges that America is becoming, according to a Trinity College survey, less Christian. It's not that Americans are converting to other religions, it's that they are more willing to avow nothing. One researcher blames Christianity's association with conservative politics for turning people away. Sexual abuse by Catholic priests also tarnished us, he says. Underlying it all is a cultural shift that makes atheism more publicly acceptable. Recognizing this trend, President Obama became the first president to pay homage to nonbelievers in his inaugural address.

Faith surveys are fraught with problems. Opinion pollsters understand that when formulating an answer many respondents ponder what other people are likely to say, and what the pollster thinks. This is because none of us wants to look stupid. While some people who claim Christian faith do so from genuine commitment, then, others likely do so because they think it's what they ought to say.

Regardless, Christianity is still hip among Americans. Although those claiming to be Christian have decreased from 86 percent in 1990 to 75 percent today, that's still a sizeable portion. What we ought to care about, however, is not what labels people choose, but what they believe and do. In surveys aimed at discerning Christian worldview (e.g., whether respondents believe that absolute truth exists, that Christ was sinless, etc.), Barna Research Group finds the portion with consistent biblical beliefs holding steady the past dozen years, around 10 percent. Similar surveys reveal disturbing ignorance of dogma among professing Christians.

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While the vast majority of Americans claim to be Christian, in other words, a good many of us don't seem capable of explaining what that means. Little wonder the comically vicious Bill Maher had such a field day filming a mockumentary wherein he accosted Christians about their faith. Not knowing what we believe makes it awfully hard to answer why we believe it. It shouldn't surprise us if Christians who can't articulate what they believe have children and grandchildren who don't even bother to try. And this is exactly what we are seeing, as large numbers of young people stop attending church altogether upon leaving home.

The way many churches respond to declining public interest exacerbates the problem. The Christian church grew when its leaders stressed biblical study and fervent prayer, each of which was considered, in the early church, a means of knowing God. The modern feel-good church, meanwhile, de-emphasizes both in favor of "messages" that are "relevant to my life." (Don't tell me what Job said about the imponderable glory of God, tell me how to have fulfilling personal relationships.) That kind of offering can only be as stimulating as its deliverer, which explains why telegenic showmen find their congregations swelling, and so many other churches are shrinking. Eliminate the theologies of Word and prayer, and all you have left is a competition to see who can provide the best circus.

What we are in danger of-in our country, in our churches, in ourselves-is practical atheism. This is not a considered embrace of godlessness. It is instead the slow slide into lives where God is irrelevant. The people who walk away from churches likely haven't pondered Christian theology and rejected it; they simply haven't been exposed to theology in the first place. Absent knowledge of-and communion with-the living God, why would anyone in his right mind keep coming back?

Practical atheism isn't limited to people who abandon church; it extends to all we who drift from Christ, even as we dutifully attend Sunday services. It's in the brief morning prayer that eventually becomes no prayer at all. It's in the way we emulate men rather than the God-man. It's in the way we brood, as if the things that vex us don't pass through the hands of a loving God. I don't know if practical atheism afflicts you, but I slip into it every day. Surveys tell us more people are forgoing the Christian label. What ought to concern us is how many-perhaps most of all ourselves-are willing to keep the label without fully living the life it requires.

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