When I am a "Functional Atheist"

by Chris Gehrz on November 1, 2016

When I’m a “Functional Atheist”

by Chris Gehrz

I’m as convinced a theist as you’re going to find. I’m a Christian who teaches at a Christian college and serves as chairperson of his church. I have a book coming out later this year on Christian higher education. This is the 434th post at this blog in the category “Christianity.”

Parker PalmerParker J. Palmer – Center for Courage & Renewal

And yet I increasingly feel like the great Quaker educator Parker Palmer was describing me when he wrote:

A third shadow common among leaders is “functional atheism,” the belief that ultimate responsibility for everything rests with us. This is the unconscious, unexamined conviction that if anything decent is going to happen here, we are the ones who must make it happen—a conviction held even by people who talk a good game about God.

“Fools say in their hearts, ‘There is no God'” (Ps 14:1). I dread to know what the psalmist would say, then, of me: someone who knows — in my heart, in my mind, in my soul — that God exists yet too often acts as if He is absent.


Most immediately, I experience this “functional atheism” as a nagging anxiety. For someone who so often proclaims hope his favorite Pauline virtue, it’s shocking to realize how often I act as if the only future open to my college, my church, my family, and myself is the one that I can bring about by my efforts in accordance with my vision. And how easily I fall into sleepless fretting when that future doesn’t materialize quickly enough.

(I don’t often read the Desiring God blog, but Andy Naselli’s exegesis of 1 Peter 5:6-7 yesterday was powerfully convicting in this respect: “Humble people cast all their anxieties on God. Proud people don’t. Proud people worry.”)

And lest I think that such fearfulness and pride impacts me alone, or that I can somehow rise above it, Palmer warns that “functional atheism”

leads us to impose our will on others, stressing our relationships, sometimes to the point of breaking. It often eventuates in burnout, depression, and despair, as we learn that the world will not bend to our will and we become embittered about that fact. 

What’s most troubling is that my “functional atheism” seems to grow stronger with time, not weaker. As I grow more confident in my abilities, I forget the humility that came with being reminded daily where my knowledge and skill were limited. Then as I take on new responsibilities as a leader in my department, college, and church, I deceive myself into placing more and more weight on my role in helping us overcome challenges and seize opportunities.

I’m most aware of the problem in my capacities as a department chair and church chair, but I’m sure it has the potential to affect my teaching as well. More than ten years into my career, I still feel more comfortable lecturing than facilitating discussion. Now, I do think there’s tremendous value to the lecture, but Palmer’s writings on “functional atheism” resonate uncomfortably with my chief shortcoming as a discussion leader — my inability to stand silence:

It explains why the average group can tolerate no more than fifteen seconds of silence: if we are not making noise, we believe, nothing good is happening and something must be dying.

Even more so, however, I’m struck that my classes only infrequently feature that most central of Christian disciplines: prayer.


Early in my career, I’m sure I would have explained my reluctance to integrate prayer into teaching muchas Jeff Bilbro put it yesterday at the Christ & University blog:

Enstrom, "Grace"Eric Enstrom’s famous 1918 photo, “Grace” – Wikimedia

I’ve always resisted praying at the beginning of class, not because I don’t value prayer, but because I worry about undervaluing it. So many meetings in Christian contexts (and even church services) begin with what seems to be a perfunctory prayer. We pray first, to get our commitment to God out of the way, and then proceed with our business. In doing this, we treat prayer as just another commodity. So I didn’t want to pray in my classes unless I could actually incorporate the prayer into the class community and not just tack it on at the beginning of each day.

What’s odd is that I’m most likely to integrate prayer in the way that Bilbro suggests (he reflects on weaving prayers into a unit on Dante) in my largest, most impersonal courses: a first-year, multidisciplinary Western Civ/church history survey where I recently concluded a lecture on the Catholic Reformation by leading over 100 students in an Ignatian exercise of prayer and meditation; and my J-term course on World War II, where each day I led thirty-plus students in reading from the daily lectionary and praying before class began.

But in my smaller history courses, where I know the students — and material — more fully and intimately, I’m much less likely to pray. Usually, I’m in too much of a rush to get to the question for the day; I act as if time is in such short supply that it would be wasteful to do something so perfunctory and non-academic as open with even a few seconds’ worth of prayer.

As Bilbro points out, leaving prayer out of such courses underscores how a “cultural dualism infects our faith, leading us to love God in some settings with our emotions, in others with our bodies, and in others with our intellects, but only rarely to integrate these loves” — when we should be modeling for students “the way that our heart and our head, our loves and our intellects, should be working in tandem.”

(Surely a Pietist editing a book about how Christian higher education aims to form “whole and holy persons” should know this! My favorite Pietist educator, former Bethel president Carl Lundquist, certainly did. “Prayer, of course, can never be a substitute for study,” he wrote in 1973, “but study must be bathed in prayer if it is to be most productive in the formation of Christian character.”) 

Moreover — and to return to Palmer’s warnings about “functional atheism” — not praying in class may teach us to believe that we can accomplish our educational purposes without God.

If we believe that “our striving would be losing” (as Martin Luther sang) if we confided in our own strength (including that of our intellect), why would we not ask a mighty God to be our fortress — in the classroom as much as in the pews? If we believe that we wrestle “against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places” (Eph 6:12, KJV) why would we not seek God’s protection from the forces that want more than anything to keep us from pursuing truth (since, as Lundquist argued, that pursuit “ultimately leads to God, who is Truth”)?

Indeed, if the psalmist and Christ himself can ask God, “Why have you forsaken me?”, then why do we not even bring our doubt, despair, and anger to Him in prayer as our discussions of history, psychology, literature, etc. lead us into the dark places where God’s goodness seems most hidden?