If ye love me, keep my commandments. (John 14:15)
It could be argued that there are no true atheists. The Bible says that “that which may be known of God is manifest in them; for God hath shewed it unto them” (Romans 1:19), so they are, in fact, not ignorant of the existence of God. Instead, they “hold [down or suppress] the truth in unrighteousness” (Romans 1:18). According to a recent poll reported in the Washington Post, August 13, 2012, only five percent (5%) of Americans profess to be atheists. That represents a rise from one percent (1%), but it could hardly be called epidemic.
The same poll noted a decline of those who call themselves “religious” from 73% to 60%. “Religious” is a rather nebulous term that could range from strict fundamental Christianity to navel-gazing new age mysticism. In an article that asks, “How Many Americans are Evangelical Christians? Born-Again Christians?” Bradley Wright points out that “Currently Evangelical Christianity in the US is at about its 40-year average, with 23%-24% of Americans affiliating with an Evangelical church or denomination.” Of course, just being affiliated with an evangelical church does not necessarily mean that the adherent is “born again.” Under this classification, Wright noted that 34% of Americans claim to be born again, and that includes mainline Protestants, and Catholics besides Evangelicals. Even here, the numbers may be misleading because many who claim to be “born again” really have no idea what that means. Probably the percentage of truly born again believers in America is less than 20%, and I base that on personal observation without any scientific proof.
My observation informs me that there exist many “practical atheists” out there. Many are in our churches and are familiar with church “lingo” so that they easily “pass” as genuine Christians. Most practical atheists, however, are either “non-religious,” that is, they profess to believe in God, but do not affiliate with any organized religion, or they are simply “spiritual” holding to one or more varieties of pantheism, and they will even “allow” for a “supreme being.” None of these would deny the existence of God outright, but they live their lives as if there is no God. Their egocentric lives are a series of choices based on what is expedient for them at the time. They never consider consulting God on a matter, but rather act on what suits them at the moment. To someone like this, James says, “Go to now, ye that say, [Today] or [tomorrow] we will go into such a city, and continue there a year, and buy and sell, and get gain: Whereas ye know not what shall be on the morrow. For what is your life? It is even a vapour, that appeareth for a little time, and then vanisheth away. For that ye ought to say, If the Lord will, we shall live, and do this, or that” (James 4:13-15). To ask God’s direction in any plan would not even occur to a practical atheist.
A practical atheist thinks that all his possessions are his because of his own effort, or in the case of him who lives off subsidies, he believes that somehow these things are owed to him. Certainly Paul’s instruction to “In [everything] give thanks: for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you” (1 Thessalonians 5:18) would make little sense. The practical atheist gives low priority to “Not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is” (Hebrews 10:25). Even if he is a member of a church, often other activities will take priority over attending the worship service and Bible study on Sundays. The practical atheist has no need to “Pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17) or to “Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth. (2 Timothy 2:15). For the practical atheist, personal prayer and Bible study are of little or no value. The practical atheist lives his life as though his future is guaranteed. He is oblivious to Jesus’ warning: “Surely, I come quickly” (Revelation 22:20).
Practical atheists are not necessarily “bad” people. Jesus told of a rich man that died and went to hell (Luke 16:19-32). Jesus’ description of the man was not necessarily an evil report; albeit he was self-centered and self-absorbed, and oblivious to the needs of Lazarus who begged outside his gates. The rich man went to hell because he was a practical atheist. He lived his life as if God did not exist even though he was probably very religious in practice, yet even his religious practice was all about him, and “God” was just part of the nomenclature of his religious life.
The practical atheist may profess a superficial belief in God, but he lives his life as if God does not exist, and as if he is not accountable to Him in any way. As Christians, we should strive to live our lives consistent with our profession and the teachings of God’s Word, and not as practical atheists.