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Issue 8-05

Evangelical Atheists

We are just beginning the spring cycle of Hungry Souls Listening Groups. I am leading three groups, with another two to be folded in after Easter.  We always take the first session to get to know one another a little, so that we are not complete strangers. The woman sitting in my living room started her story with these words: “I guess you could say that I was raised by parents who were Evangelical atheists...”
Whoa, I thought.  Now that’s strong!—Evangelical atheism. The woman explained that her parents adhered to conservative Christianity but that their lives were a dysfunctional antithesis to belief. Over the next month, I kept mulling over this apparent oxymoron—Evangelical atheism, Evangelical atheism. Could that be one of the reasons our spiritual fiber is weakening in the West?  Are there too many of us who really don’t believe what we say we believe and our living is proof of this subtle dissembling?  Do  the words we say, the thoughts we act out, the way we function with family, or friends, or at work belie the faith system we say (fool ourselves into thinking) we follow? Are many of us really closet Evangelical atheists?

This season of Lent, I’m asking us to examine why so many Western Christians often wonder, Is this really all this is to Christianity? What’s wrong? Why am I so ineffectual? With so much religious feeding going on, why am I still hungry? Polls released this week reveal that 10% less Americans claim to be Christian than before. This is a huge statistical shift—what is happening?

The Web site Real Clear Politics ( reprinted an article this week from the Christian Science Monitor Web site ( It was titled “The Coming Evangelical Collapse.” In it, the author, Michael Spencer, a writer who describes himself as “a postevangelical reformation Christian in search of a Jesus-shaped spirituality” predicts the demise of evangelicalism as we know it due to seven predications. The first one is, “Evangelicals have identified their movement with the culture war and with political conservatism.” Number two reads, “We Evangelicals have failed to pass on to our young people an orthodox form of faith that can take root and survive the secular onslaught … our young people have deep believes about the culture war, but do not know why they should obey scripture, the essentials of theology, or the experience of spiritual discipline and community. Coming generations of Christians are going to be monumentally ignorant and unprepared for culture-wide pressures.”

I would maintain that one of the reasons those young people are so often adrift is that their own parents are living out a faith where their religious activity has more to do with form, not a “Jesus-shaped spirituality.” In the documentary An Unreasonable Man, which chronicles the amazing consumer-safety record established by Ralph Nader, the principle reveals how, when coming home from grade school one afternoon, his father, an immigrant to this country asked, “Well, what did you learn in school today? Did they teach you how to believe, or did they teach you how to think?”

Have we been teaching ourselves how to believe without also emphasizing how to think about what we believe, and then, how that thinking belief affects how we choose to live?

Let me try to make this a little clearer. Gary Haugen, a lawyer former employed in the civil-rights division of the U.S. Department of Justice, who was also the director of the United Nations genocide investigation in Rwanda, has taken a huge lifestyle leap, committing essential professional suicide by resigning his high-powered positions in order to live out a Jesus-shaped spirituality. He and dedicated colleagues have founded and are forming the International Justice Mission, which confronts, rescues and protects those women, men and children who are held in thrall to the deeply entrenched sex slave industries in the world.

In his book Just Courage: God’s Great Expedition for the Restless Christian, Haugen talks about being haunted by John Stuart Mill’s 1859 essay “On Liberty.” (Mill was a philosopher who argued in this essay that “over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.”)  The thoughts that gnawed Haugen were those where Mill examined how words lose their meaning, using Christians as the prime example, since they seemed to have a remarkable ability to say wonderful things without really believing them.

Haugen writes, “What became more disturbing was his list of things that Christians, like me, actually say—like, blessed are the poor and humble; it’s better to give than receive; judge not, lest you be judged; love your neighbor as yourself, etc.—and examining how differently I would live my life if I actually believed such things. As Mill concluded, ‘The sayings of Christ co-exist passively in their minds, producing hardly any effect beyond what is caused by mere listening to words so amiable and bland.’”

Is this a 19th-century prognostication of a 21st-century Western spiritual malaise, Evangelical atheism?

Need we (need I) begin asking ourselves (asking myself), “Am I really an unbeliever in church clothes?”  Or perhaps a better question would be, “Where are the areas of faith in which I am practicing disbelief?  Where am I really NOT seeking a Jesus-shaped spirituality?”

I often pause in the outside lobby of bookstores because many of them stack their really bargain books in enticing displays that catch the attention of an avid book-lover like myself.  Recently, I picked up (for $5) 7 Minutes of Magic: The Ultimate Energy Workbook.  A blurb by Deeprak Chopra graced the cover, “A perfect blend of Western and Eastern fitness to jump-start your day and help you relax at night.”  Since I am working at getting eight hours of sleep per night as part of my aging-gracefully attempt, I thought I might pick up some tips for evenings when I need to begin incorporating the 7 minutes of relaxing techniques and for those mornings when I can’t afford the hour that a CURVES appointment would take.

The book has sat, unopened, on my bedroom chair for about two months. 

This 7-minute approach of flow exercises and stretches is supposed to  give me a “lightning flash of vitality” as the ancients say, after a long night of inactivity—although my nights are not always so inactive. It is supposed to center me and relax me for sleep at night. Somehow (isn’t it strange?) that book hasn’t done a thing for me … just sitting on the chair with the cover photo of some well-toned practitioner stretching from spine to flap.

Get the picture?  We must do what we know is good for us—or at least we must try to do what we know is good for us.

One thing I loved about Gary Haugen’s thinking was this: When starting the International Justice Mission, he and his colleagues put themselves in a place where they were utterly dependant upon God. “This is why I am so grateful for my experience with IJM—because it gives me a continual experience of my weakness in which God is delighted to show his power … We are forced by our own weakness to beg him for it, and at times we work without  a net, apart from his saving hand. And we have found him to be real—and his hand to be true and strong—in a way we would never have experienced strapped into our own safety harnesses.

“In concrete terms, what does that desperation look like? For me, it means being confronted with a videotape of hundreds of young girls in Cambodia being put on open sale to be raped by sex tourists and foreign pedophiles. It means going into a brothel in Cambodia as part of an undercover investigation and being presented with a dozen girls between the ages of five and ten who are being forced to provide sex to strangers.  It means being told by everyone who should know that there is nothing that can be done about it. It means facing death threats for my investigative colleagues, high-level police corruption, desperately inadequate aftercare capacities for victims and a hopelessly corrupt court system. It means going to God in honest argument and saying, ‘Father, we cannot solve this,” and hearing him say, ‘Do what you know best do, and watch me with the rest.’”

Because of this dependency and because of the intransigency of the evil that is being confronted, IJM staff begins the first half-hour of the day in quiet reflection, to listen, to be still, to sort things through. Then, they gather again—every day at 11:00 A.M.—to pray about the life-and-death situations they are facing.

That’s a cure for evangelical atheism if I ever saw one—a long dose of Jesus-shaped spirituality.

So, what do you think about all this? What would happen if we asked the question: “If I really believed what I say I believe, how would it radically change what I think and say and do?”

I’m looking at my own heart, conducting a gentle self-examination, quietly considering my own bent being—this activity being one of the reasons for the long season of Lent.  How about you—have you been finding any closet atheism?

Karen Mains

Some Reports

*Hungry Souls received a $500 donation toward our photographer’s trip to Kenya. I had decided we needed to take a step of faith and have this professional travel with us, so this was a verification of that decision. If any others of you would like to contribute toward this journey, I am praying the money in and would welcome your help.

*We have a draft Global Bag Project Web site up. We will publish it on the Internet once our African colleagues have had a chance to look it over and give me feedback. The Global Bag Project brochure is finished and looks good.

*We have had a cancellation for the 3-Day Retreat of Silence in which we will attempt to put a template together and raise up retreat leaders for these extended retreats. So we have room for one more person. The cost is $150. The dates are April 19 (3 p.m.) to April 22 (noon).  If you are interested in joining us, please respond to



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Karen Mains

Karen Mains

"As for why we lack spiritual health, I think it's because although we have an abundance of spiritual food, we don't engage in spiritual exercise enough. Health requires not just nourishment but exercise."
- Keri Wyatt Kent

(Keri Wyatt Kent, the author of "Rest: Living in Sabbath Simplicity" sent her comment about our spiritual state. Thanks, Keri.)

Recommended Reading

Just Courage: God's Great Expedition for the Restless Christian
By Gary Haugen

Praise for Just Courage

"Gary Haugen explores what it means to really care about those who suffer--and it isn't necessarily the path we might expect. We tend to think of soup kitchens and painting buildings as ways to express our compassion for those in need, but Gary makes a convincing argument that fighting for justice on behalf of the poor is a powerful, effective way to make a long-term difference in their lives. Don't miss this book!"
-- Kay Warren, executive director, HIV/AIDS Initiative, Saddleback Church

"Just Courage is a life-changing book. Gary Haugen's echo of God's call to a life of significance and adventure is irresistible. He places the fight for justice right where the Bible does: square in the middle of Christian discipleship. Every follower of Jesus should read this book and take action on behalf of a world that 'waits, groaning' for us to bring hope, love and rescue."
-- Lynne and Bill Hybels, Willow Creek Community Church

"Just Courage shines like exit-lighting, leading me out of the guilt-laden, often overwhelming conversations about what I should be doing, to the life-giving redemptive promises about my life as a follower of Jesus Christ. Gary Haugen speaks beautifully and directly to the truth that entering into justice work is not optional in the life of the believer, but is the realization of our deepest faith and desires to live lives of significance. The most important truth that I have taken from this book and from the work of IJM is this: the same suffering of others that caused me to question the goodness of God is now the conduit for truly understanding the goodness of God. There are profound aspects of his call and character that I cannot grasp, until I enter into the suffering of others."
-- Sara Groves, singer and songwriter

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