In an article in The Atlantic Monthly, author and editor-at-large Jonathon Rauch recalled a time he attended a dinner party and was asked about his religion. Rauch, a self-proclaimed atheist, considered what to say and realized that atheists were no different than theists in that both sets of people try to convince others of their beliefs, seek converts, and build ideological communities.
Rauch concluded that he wasn’t an atheist. He answered that he was a “practical atheist,” someone indifferent to his own beliefs or those of others.
Rauch went on to explain that the most convincing practical atheists were not atheists at all, but were Christians. Many Christians he knew personally said they believed in God and attended a church, but then acted, lived, and made decisions as if God didn’t exist.
The article is a direct challenge to Christianity and the church. It begs the question: How many of us say we believe God, but then live our life as if God doesn’t exist, as if God does not participate in our life every day?
This challenge is not new. The church has been filled with practical atheists for a long time. In his first letter to Timothy, the apostle Paul reveals that Timothy’s own congregation contains many who believed in myths, superstitions, and “lies” (1:3-4).
Paul didn’t direct his attack towards non-believers; his accusation aimed directly at Christians who claimed to believe in Christ but acted as if no transformation in Christ–no salvation–had occurred.
Paul used himself as an example of what it meant to be a practical atheist. He tells in 1 Timothy 1:12-14 that when he was saved in Christ, it was God’s mercy that saved him from “unbelief” as well. If you recall, Paul was very religious before his conversion to Christianity: he believed in God and he believed in Torah.
Yet, even then, in the midst of his religiosity, Paul lived a life of “unbelief”. No wonder then that, in a few scripture passages later, Paul charged Timothy to “fight the good fight with faith and a clear conscience” (1:18).
Speaking to his congregation on a similar subject, Pastor Craig Groeschel (who calls himself a recovering Christian atheist) once asked whether any of his churchgoers were practical atheists. He posed several thoughts for them to consider: If they believed in God, but didn’t fear God, they might be practical atheists.
If they say they believed God, but then pursued happiness at any cost, they might be practical atheists. If they say they believed God, but then put their trust in money, they might be practical atheists. (His sermons became the subject of his latest book, The Christian Atheist.)
Pastor Groeschel argued that many Christians find it hard to respond to these challenges because they never mature in their salvation in Christ. Most Christians believe in the Gospel in order to benefit from it while others believe in the Gospel enough to contribute to it. Very few, he argued, believe in the Gospel enough to give their lives to it.
According to Paul, people who never matured in their belief in God eventually shipwrecked their faith.
This idea of shipwreck is a poignant one: In the ancient world, pirates pretended to be stranded to lure passing ships to come help them. The ships, unbeknownst to the captain in charge, would seek to save the lost but then run aground in shallow or rock-laden water.
What starts off as a rescue mission turns tragic because a captain loses sight of the destination; with good intentions he brings his ship to places that are unfamiliar, treacherous–places born out of “lies”.
Practical atheism is one of those threats that lurks beneath the surface of all our lives. Paul was right: keeping the faith is like a fight, and we must be diligent to stay the course, keep our eyes on the prize, and remember that God participates in our life every moment, every day.