I have never met a genuine confirmed atheist. Unfortunately though, I have rubbed shoulders with many practical atheists and have even wonder if I am not one of them some days.
The Stephen Hawkings of this world seem to be few and far between. Not many people boldly articulate the words of Psalm 14:1 with full conviction, “There is no God.” Most people would come up on the short end of a discussion with the likes of C. S. Lewis or N. T. Wright on that subject. They would even be hard pressed to argue away the truthfulness of the miraculous feeding stories in this week’s Scriptures in 2 Kings 4 and John 6. As with most objections to the Bible and Christian faith, their arguments are often rooted more in moral dishonesty than they are in intellectual honesty.
Yet, practical atheists, those who act as if there is no God, abound. Many go quietly about their daily lives without much thought of God. They do not intend to leave God out. They just get busy with the affairs of living. They know God is out there somewhere, but how God might play into the decisions and trajectories of an ordinary day is simply not considered. Only when crises emerge does faith in God seem to be significant. For the most part, life is lived as if one’s personal kingdom is all that really matters and the kingdom of God is just not that relevant.
Such people regularly meet us in grocery stores, greet us at gas pumps, sell us insurance, cheer alongside us at sporting events and wave to us from their driveways. But they might also be sitting in our pews Sunday after Sunday.
As Gerald Wilson was commenting on Psalm 14 in the NIV Application Commentary he wondered if it did not talk about church folk just as much as the non-believers of this world. He noted the inclusive language used consistently throughout the psalm. For example, Wilson pointed out that “the LORD looks down from heaven on all mankind” and finds that “all have turned away, all have become corrupt” (vv 2-3). Is this mere hyperbole? Or is God identifying a widespread tendency among humans? Do most people say “there is no God” by the way they live their lives?
Psalm 14 reminds us that practical atheism carries significant consequences. Those who leave God out of life “are corrupt,” that is, they are ruined like a crop spoiled by insects or blight (v 1).
Furthermore, “their deeds are evil,” which is to say, the things they do are abhorrent, repulsive, or disgusting (v 1). In fact, the psalmist calls them “evildoers” who know nothing and yet use people as if they are food to consume (v 4). They even try to “frustrate the plans of the poor, ” meaning they cause people afflicted by this world to feel embarrassed about their plight (v 6). These are not very desirable qualities. Clearly we were not created to live without God in our lives.
Most devastating of all, however, is that practical atheists “are overwhelmed with dread” when they notice how “God is present in the company of the righteous” (v 5). The contrast between life under God’s care and apart from it is unsettling. The atheist will eventually discover how extremely frightening life can be without God. At best, life is a crap-shoot, a wild ride on a bucking bronco. Who knows how to navigate and control its many twists and turns? When God is absent we become like a deer in the headlights.
In the end the atheist, either theoretically or practically speaking, is “a fool” according to verse 1. That is the kind of person in the Bible who is not just intellectually deficient, but also morally lacking. They do not just make bad choices accidently or for lack of knowledge. They chose stupidity. Like Achan, they decide to do the dumb thing even though they have been instructed otherwise (Joshua 7:15).
2 Samuel 11 illustrates how even the most spiritual among us can become a practical atheist. David had passionately led an entire nation in honoring God, but one day he acted as if God did not matter. His hormones overruled his head and he did disgusting things. He began to use people, first Bathsheba, then Joab, and then Uriah. Fear of being found out and losing prestige gripped him and drove him to murder. He had become thoroughly corrupted, spoiled by appetites of the flesh.
Psalm 14 helps us understand then why Paul prayed so fervently that believers would be consistently aware of God’s presence in their lives. He longed “that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith … being rooted and established in love” so that believers might “grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ” (Ephesians 3:17-18). As a final result of such understanding, he prayed that they would “be filled to the measure of all fullness of God” (v 19). When a person has God that deeply in their lives, atheism disappears, both theoretically and practically. This was Paul’s regular prayer, for he explained in the ongoing present active indicative, “I am kneeling before the Father” to offer this prayer (v 14). He kept constant vigil with such prayers, because he knew how tempting practical atheism could be.
Psalm 14 also seems to end with a prayer, though the Hebrew is difficult to understand. If most English translations are correct, the psalmist prays for salvation to “come out of Zion” (v 7). Such a prayer, like Paul’s, also combats atheism. It yearns for the goodness of God to infuse the life of his people until they rejoice and are glad. In such a context, atheism diminishes and people become aware of God in every aspect of life.