Why Might a UCC Minister Be Thought of as a "Functional Atheist"?

In a discussion that is now closed, Puck wrote this:

“Most of it is liable to fall upon infertile ground. I had an interesting conversation about this with my UCC pastor friend whom I’ve known for almost fifty years. He’s quite devout, and yet would probably be described as a “functional atheist” by some of the wild-eyed ones out there because science denial isn’t his thing and neither are apologetics in general. I asked him whether, in all these years in the UCC (about 35; he and I have known each other since junior high), he’d ever found himself confronted with a parishioner who had begun reading the Bible and had concluded that the UCC wasn’t taking the Bible literally enough, and who was leaning toward creationism. He said that in thousands of conversations of every sort about faith and doubt and belief, this had just never come up – that it was always a non-issue for anyone he’d ever dealt with.”

This is interesting. I don’t know anyone who would call a UCC minister a “functional atheist” because of his positions on scientific matters or because he doesn’t write apologetics. (For example, lots of Christian ministers don’t write apologetics, and nobody infers atheism on their part because of that.) I would think that if a UCC minister has been called (or thought of) as a functional atheist, it’s because his views about things a minister is expected to be interested in – God, Jesus, the Bible, salvation, etc. – sound like the views of an atheist rather than the views of an ordained Christian clergyman.

Could you provide a little more information about the views of this minister, that would shed light on why some might think him an atheist?

For example, you say he is “devout” – but devout about what? Many UCC ministers are “devout” about some things, e.g., social justice, “inclusiveness”, environmental activism, feminism, socialism, the United Nations, creating multiple washrooms in every school and public institution for people who claim to belong to a third, fourth, or fifth “gender”; but is he “devout” regarding the Apostle’s Creed? Does he think its statements are true? Is he devout about the Bible? Does he think it is the revealed word of God (as opposed to a very flawed attempt by man to understand God)? Is he devout about Jesus? Does he think Jesus was in any sense divine? That Jesus is in any sense a “Savior”? Is he devout about God? Does he believe that God exists, not as some vague, uncharacterizable “ground of being”, or “ideal of love and goodness,” but as a personal entity who has interacted historically with the people of Israel, with the Church, and with the human race generally?

I think the public has seen enough clergy from the UCC (and also the Anglicans, Methodists, and others) who are “devout” about any number of currently fashionable worldly causes but very sketchy about what they believe as Christians regarding core doctrines of the faith, that it is not surprising if some clergy are thought of as “functional atheists”.

Indeed, as I think we have discussed or at least mentioned before, in some mainstream churches clergy have come right out and directly admitted to being atheists – and have tried to keep their jobs!

Any more information you can provide would be helpful here.

Good question. In an online exchange elsewhere, a commenter made the claim that atheism is untenable since “He appears in the experience of the balance population of billions of souls.” It seems devoutness doesn’t need details. Jews, Moslems, Sikhs, Hindus, Buddhists, Mormons are all a cut above atheists. :slightly_smiling_face:

I have found that most people in the United States are “functional atheists” They know little about their faith that was given to them by their parents. They don’t belong to a church, synagogue, or mosque. They are essential Catholic atheists, or Jewish atheists. Perhaps the better term is apatheists.


Probably not true for the subset of the population that are pastors, though.

Correct. The pastor has, in the overwhelming majority of cases, received formal instruction in religion and theology, and therefore is reasonably expected to know what his particular denomination or theological tradition claims and upholds. When he or she voluntarily takes on the job of being a pastor, there is the reasonable expectation that he or she will articulate and defend the faith the particular community which has appointed him or her. In cases where the pastor appears to be contradicting that faith, or even dodging questions about his or her personal commitment to major components of that faith, the suspicion of heresy and in some cases the suspicion of atheism may arise. Since Puck was referring to a UCC pastor, I think my question, which was about pastors, is pertinent.

I don’t know whether “most people” is correct or not. But certainly the phenomenon you identify is real. Note, however, that this is much more common in “mainstream” churches (Catholic, Episcopalian, Presbyterian, Methodist, UCC, etc.) and much less common in other sorts of church – pentecostal, fundamentalist, evangelical, etc., where members tend to “own” their faith rather than merely passively attend services.

@Alan Fox. Your comment seems to me oblique rather than direct. I assume the obliqueness was intended, but I don’t get your point, so if you want me to respond, you will need to state, rather than hint, what you are getting at. Otherwise, I will just leave your comment where it is.

While I am not hesitant to do that, I think my meaning may not have been understood quite as intended. I don’t think anyone could reasonably call him an atheist. My comment was not really about his views as such but was about the attitudes I have repeatedly encountered in places where creationism is common: that acceptance of evolution is effectively a denial of the existence of god and that one isn’t a “real” Christian unless one is aggressively arguing for the truth of the gospel.

When I say he is “devout” this is my own evaluation of what seems to be the deep sincerity of his belief and the seriousness with which he takes the supernatural commitments of the faith. I have not probed those subjects deeply with him so I cannot answer most of your specific questions, e.g., how he feels about the Apostle’s Creed. He clearly believes the gospels are actually true – not in only some metaphorical or symbolic sense – and in the true divinity of Jesus. He and I were expecting, in fact, to have some long conversations about such things on a lengthy visit I was going to pay him in May of 2020, and then COVID killed everyone’s travel plans including mine. I know his favorite theologian is Karl Barth, and he’s among the various people who have referred me to the works of N.T. Wright. He and I have discussed academic theology a bit but have actually not spent that much time talking about what, precisely, he personally believes.

I did not mean to suggest that he IS in any genuine sense a “functional atheist,” which is probably not a term I would particularly choose even in a case where it is actually near the mark. What I meant was more like this: I work a few blocks from the odious ex-Mars Hill Church in Seattle (founded by a small group of pastors which included another junior high school classmate of ours), once the home of Mark Driscoll, the pastor who famously described the function of a woman as being, from a man’s point of view, a garage in which to keep one’s penis. I lived, for what was less than a year but felt like ten, in a small town where we had a church shaped like Noah’s Ark where people who are sure the earth is 6,000 years old go to speak in tongues and to translate the babbling of others who speak in tongues. To the passionate practitioners of penis-garage faiths and babbling-incoherently faiths, I am sure that my friend would be a “functional atheist.” But this is more a statement about the validity and intellectual (and other) rigor of the dogmatics and hermeneutics of penis-garagism than it is a statement about my friend’s views on Christian faith.

P.S., later added:

One small point: you say that he doesn’t “write apologetics” and that one wouldn’t normally infer atheism from that. True enough. But I didn’t actually say he doesn’t write apologetics – I said, rather imprecisely, that apologetics aren’t “his thing.” By that I meant that he is seriously not the least bit interested in apologetics. He doesn’t seem to think that convincing people who do not believe in god that they should believe is something he ought to be doing, and instead seems to think that his ministry is for those who have come to their own views on this matter and who come to seek his guidance/insight/advice/counsel/whatever. To put it another way: far from being actively interested in apologetics enough to write apologetical works, he is quite definitely UNinterested in apologetics.


Thanks for this explanation, Puck.

Yes, I agree that there are Christians of a certain type who have such a narrow view that a good number of other Christians fall under suspicion of atheism, or at least appear to be sliding down the slippery slope toward atheism. Indeed, I’m sure that many such Christians would put me in that class.

If your friend’s favorite theologian is Barth, he is likely not the sort of ultra-liberal, trendy, politically correct UCC minister that I was thinking about. And your other remarks about his beliefs suggest the same.

I’m not actually very fond of Barth, for various reasons, but I concede that a true Barthian is not a nebulous theological liberal. (It’s true, however, that some Christians who are somewhat nebulous liberals cite Barth with approval on some points; e.g., some of the TEs at BioLogos – but that is another topic, and we don’t need to go into that.)

Anyhow, I see now that your friend is not a “functional atheist,” so we managed to clear that up pretty quickly. If only all discussions here could go so smoothly! Best wishes.

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