Alibris Secondhand Books Standard

Thursday, August 03, 2006

united states of atheism?

It is not uncommon in fundamentalist circles to hear the claim that the United States is largely an atheistic nation and that even most nominal Christians don't really believe in God. In our culture, the fundamentalists maintain, true believers are a minority.

But this idea isn't limited to fundamentalists.

Though there may have been periods in the history of the West when its "official" values roughly coincided with the central values of the Christian tradition, that time is no more. In the modern period, a yawning gap has opened. The dominant values of contemporary American life -- affluence, achievement, appearance, power, competition, consumption, individualism -- are vastly different from anything recognizably Christian. ... Modern culture functions as a rival lord in our lives, conferring values and identity and demanding obedience, all in conformity to its vision of reality. ... Jesus is a vivid challenge to our notion of reality, the "practical atheism" of much of our culture and church.

- Marcus Borg, Jesus: A New Vision

There was a time when unbelief also appeared to be adventuresome, when the denial of God was experienced as an exciting new possibility, a heroic refusal to participate in oppressive social convention. In our day, unbelief is the socially acceptable way of living in the West. It no longer takes courage to disbelieve. As Alasdair MacIntyre has noted... we Christians have given atheists less and less in which to disbelieve! A flaccid church has robbed atheism of its earlier pretensions of adventure.

- Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon, Resident Aliens

What these mainline (Hauerwas and Willimon) and liberal (Borg) scholars have observed is one of the great paradoxes of modern liberal democracy. When the government backs off and lets people practice their faith in accordance with their own consciences, many people choose not to practice at all. Freedom of religion -- even for many who say they believe -- becomes freedom from religion.

Christian dominionists would stop this trend by blending church and state, creating a theocracy. This solution might get more people into the churches, but it wouldn't do much to change our culture (except probably to create a backlash).

On the other side of the coin, religious freedom allows ordinary people to find ways to serve God that wouldn't be possible under theocratic rule. What would the world be like if Habitat for Humanity, Ten Thousand Villages, or Bread for the World did not exist? These and countless other ministries were begun, not by official church decrees, but by lay people who saw a need that was not being met.

It is in religious practice that faith reaches its fullest expression. For some people, this practice might be expressed in acts of devotion: prayer, worship, study of Scripture. For others, it might be expressed in acts of service, whether to other church members, to the community, or in overseas missions. Either way, faith must be put into action. "For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is also dead." (James 2:26)

Take a look at the websites for the nation's most prominent megachurches. You'll see a lot of information about how the church can serve your needs, but not much about how you can serve others through the church. Maybe these churches feel that they must appeal to visitors' self-interest in order to continue to grow, but is that really the best way to make Christian disciples?

I don't have any answers. Personally, I think Borg, Hauerwas, and Willimon are overstating the case somewhat. But I think they do have a point: American churches have not taken their role seriously to be the church. Probably we do have many "practical atheists" in the church. Perhaps the culture of the church needs to be transformed. Before Christians complain about the problems in the general culture, perhaps we should remove the log from our own eye.



At 8/04/2006 5:39 AM, Blogger HeyJules said...

Bruce, this is so interesting to see you talk about this. Our church just went through a "redefining" period and we realized we had lost our focus on stepping out into the community and being 'THERE' for all of them. We're now heading into a year of devout committment to make a difference in our community by offering free marriage classes, low cost daycare, and by hosting events where the community can come together and just BE COMMUNITY.

I'm so thrilled my church has made this committment to get back out and be "the church."

At 8/04/2006 9:13 AM, Anonymous A said...

"It is difficult to say what the church could offer as an alternative if it refuses to be the church." ~Luke Timothy Johnson (a well known Catholic seminary prof and NT exegete), said in an interview with Krista Tippett on NPR's "Speaking of Faith"

I was reminded of this quote--one of my favorites--by your post.

Excellent post, by the way.

At 8/05/2006 9:06 AM, Blogger Albert said...

Despite avowals to the contrary, we live in a completely atheistic and irreligious culture. To be sure, most people profess a belief in a higher power of some sort, and many people attend religious services regularly. But religion, by which I mean religious values, plays no role in shaping the economic and political forces that structure and control our culture.

The "good life," according to religion, consists not in the pursuit of wealth, reputation, or power, but rather in the pursuit of right relationship with the divine. The values of our culture are diametrically opposed to the values of religion. Success in our culture is measured by wealth, reputation, and power; and the desires that are requisite for obtaining this success are greed and ambition. No one gets rich by being kind to competitors; no one gains political office by being loving towards their opponents. Religious values are paid lip service, but they are inoperative in our culture. Indeed, they are fundamentally incompatible with the values that do, in fact, drive our culture.

—Neal Grossman from article at:


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