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Practical Atheism and Practical Theism

I have personally seen articles and books on “practical atheism.”  Different than speculative atheism or philosophical atheism, “practical atheism” is found in the lives of many people who believe in God but who live as if He does not exist.  “Practical theism” is quite another issue.  I have never seen anything written on this before, with the exception of what I have written myself.  “Practical theism” exists in the person who doubts or is uncertain as the existence of God, but “acts as if” He really does exist (whether they have decided this on their own, or they have been counseled to adopt this position).  I intend to address both of these issues in this essay.

Practical Atheism

Rubel Shelly defined “practical atheism” as:  “holding an intellectual commitment to belief in God but thinking, feeling, and behaving as if there were no God” (13). The apostle Paul defined it when he stated:  “They profess to know God, but by their deeds they deny Him, being detestable and disobedient, and worthless for any good deed” (Titus 1:6). [Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture citations are from the New American Standard Bible, 1977 edition.] Craig Groeschel recounted the famous Charles Blondin (the first to cross Niagara Falls on a tight rope), as he once walked across Niagara Falls pushing a wheelbarrow.  The story goes that an exuberant onlooker called out, “You could cross with a man in that wheelbarrow!”  Blondin agreed and invited the man to be his “passenger,” but the man nervously declined the invitation.  To this, Groeschel commented:

My dysfunctional relationship with God was often like that.  I’ve always believed in God, just not enough to trust him with my whole life in his wheelbarrow.  I knew God could fulfill his promises, but I was never sure he’d do it for me.  My selfish Christian Atheist view was that God existed for me, rather than I for him.  If he’d do what I thought he should, I’d trust him more.  If he’d come through for me, I’d give him more of my life.  If he made my life better and pain-free, I’d believe him more passionately.  But anytime God didn’t meet my expectations, we had a problem.  God created me in his image.  I returned the favor and created him in mine.  The kind of God I wanted to believe in was this:  if he’s not what I want, then he can’t have my whole life.  (233-34)

The “practical atheist” may not read his Bible, or study it in any way.  He may not attend worship assemblies regularly.  He certainly does not get fully involved in the work of the local church, although he may do things to help from time to time.  How different is this from the speculative atheist who does not read the Bible because he considers the author of that book to be a figment of one’s imagination?  Would we ever expect the atheist to attend our worship assemblies?  And, even though they may do good things from time to time, they do not really get involved in the work and/or worship of the local congregation.  Actually, the speculative atheist is even a bit more honest than the “practical atheist” because she informs us that she has no intention of getting involved with God, the Bible, or the church in any way.  The “practical atheist” would be expected to be involved in each of these areas.  But, since he does not get involved, he is even worse in character than the speculative atheist!

“Practical atheists” often think of the church for what they can get out of it, rather than for what they can give to it.  In other words, they are expecting to be served by others instead of being servants of Christ, and therefore, servants of their fellow man.  Think of what Jesus said to His disciples just here:

And hearing this, the ten became indignant with the two brothers.  But Jesus called them to Himself, and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. It is not so among you, but whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant,  and whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave; just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.” (Matthew 20:24-28)

And, the apostle Paul said: “Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 2:5, NKJV). The true Christian has a servant’s heart.  He/she has the mind of Christ, and mimics God (cf. Ephesians 5:1). As Groeschel made clear, the “practical atheist” may very well believe in God, but is not convinced that God really loves him, or he does not believe in prayer, or he is not convinced that God will forgive, or he still worries all the time, or he does not believe in the church, etc. The practical atheist is always inconsistent in heart and life, and is really one who needs to repent. Rubel Shelly tells a story that illustrates this point very effectively:

A woman divorced her husband and took their tiny baby away with her.  As that little girl grew up, she was lied to by her mother.  She was told her father was dead.  Not only was she told that her father was dead, but she was led to have a negative attitude toward her dad as she grew up.  So she grew up and lived her entire adult life not knowing she had a father who lived relatively nearby.  The only thoughts she ever had about him were negative.

Another little girl grew up in a home under the influence and guidance of her father.  She was not separated from him nor lied to about his existence.  That father loved that little girl.  He fussed over her and gave her the best he had, beginning with his heart.  But when she grew up, she broke that man’s heart by turning against everything for which he stood.  Oh, she would visit him every once in a while.  She would certainly visit him on Christmas and Father’s Day.  She would send cards saying, “Dad, I love you.”  But every day she broke his heart by living a life that repudiated all he ever held sacred.

Which of these two girls is to be pitied, and which one is to be scorned?  I pity the one who never knew she had a father, who had been deceived and made to think negatively about him.  I don’t scorn her because her mother had lied to her.  However, I have contempt for the other one.  She knew her father was good and kind.  Her father had given everything he had to her, but she stomped on it.

I have more pity and sympathy for the atheist, the speculative atheist, the fellow who says, “I don’t believe in God,” who has been deceived, lied to, or misled and whose only thoughts of God are basically negative.  However, I can only have contempt for one who wears the name of Christ and who, knowing our Father loves us and has give us His best, defies Him and breaks His will.  It is worse for us to believe in God and yet live as if there were no God than to doubt His existence.  (38)

There should be little difficulty in recognizing what I take to be a serious problem within Christendom in general, and Christianity in particular, today. Part of the obligation to love God supremely (cf. Matthew 22:37-40; Mark 12:29-31) is to love God “with all our mind.” It is this mental weakness, coupled with a lack of real commitment that creates the problem of “practical atheism.” There are millions, it appears, who believe that God exists, but who also live as if He makes no appreciable difference at all in their day to day activities.  "Practical atheism" manifests itself in the lives of those who do believe in God, but who live, act and think as if God does not exist! Their thoughts are rarely focused upon God and His will; they do not attend worship assemblies regularly; their speech and actions are indistinguishable from others around them; etc. In short, they are really no different than atheists, in spite of the fact that they do believe in God!

Practical Theism

The “practical theist” is an entirely different type of person. Here the challenge is not that of hypocrisy, inconsistency, or lukewarmness. It is located essentially in the area of doubt and uncertainty. A professor at one of our large universities would tell students who expressed doubt as to the existence of God: “act as if God exists for a month and see what happens.” It is this “acting as if” with which I have a problem. This is nothing other than a subtle form of agnosticism. While articles have been plentiful on "practical atheism," I have yet to see-the first word on "practical theism."  The "practical theist" is one who doubts, or, is unsure of God's existence, but who lives, acts and thinks as if God does exist. There are currently some within the body of Christ who counsel men and women and women to adopt this posture toward God. I have heard with my own ears a statement like the following: “When persons express their doubts concerning God’s existence, I advise them to act 'as if' He does exist for one month and watch what happens.” Persons who accept this advice actually admit the possibility of the non-existence of God, and are led to think that their beliefs and/or actions will make a difference in reality! But, if God does not really exist (and, since they do not know for sure, such is a strong possibility--at least, as far as they are concerned), one’s subjective beliefs (however sincere) and actions (however strenuous) will not bring Him into existence. That is, one's beliefs and/or actions cannot change the reality of the situation. God either exists or not. Your beliefs (unless based upon adequate evidence) will not alter this truth.

The agnostic says that one cannot know for sure whether God exists or does not exist.  There are several different degrees of such skepticism, however, such an agnostic may lean in the direction of atheism (as did Bertrand Russell and Clarence Darrow) or he may lean in the direction of theism (as did Soren Kierkegaard and Immanuel Kant).  Evidently, this professor believed that one could cure their uncertainties by merely “acting as if” God really did exist instead of choosing the opposite course of action.  At an event where I was speaking, a prayer was offered at the end by a university administrator (who was very complimentary of my lecture), and in the prayer he made this “acting as if” comment. This was likely because he had heard it before as a solution to a lack of empirical perception of God. Maybe he obtained this viewpoint from the previously mentioned professor, although that professor is clearly not the first or the last person who has made such an argument to help struggling students cure their doubts. Indeed, the Brecheen-Faulkner “Marriage Enrichment Seminars,” while extremely helpful in many respects, had as an essential part of the problem the “fake it until you make it” philosophy.  We were told to “act as if” things were different in numerous areas of our lives.  This may have some merit in goal setting exercises, precisely because one is attempting to create a planned future series of results, but does this work in all areas of life?  And, should one urge belief in God based upon a “fake it until you make it” mentality?

Actually, this philosophical position seems to have taken root in the viewpoint of German philosopher Hans Vaihinger who suggested that we should approach language by offering an invitational mood to those with whom we communicate.  In other words, we “invite” them to see things the way we see them.  This is coupled with Vaihinger’s denial that one’s knowledge is based upon objective reality.  He said:  “(T)he object of the world of ideas as a whole is not the portrayal of reality--this would be an utterly impossible task--but rather to provide us with an instrument for finding our way about more easily in the world” (cf. Raskin and Murano). Vaihinger’s philosophical position was highly influential with atheistic psychologist Alfred Adler. And, it has virtually become entrenched as orthodoxy within the realm of modern psychology as a result.  Kelly goes on to describe the implications of this position:

Vaihinger began to develop a system of philosophy he called the “philosophy of ‘as if.’”  In it he offered a system of thought in which God and reality might best be represented as paradigms.  This was not to say that either God or reality was any less certain than anything else in the realm of man’s awareness, but only that all matters confronting man might be best be regarded in hypothetical ways. (149)

As can be clearly observed, God may or may not be real; one simply can never know for sure.  So, we need to regard this question as really a purely hypothetical matter.

In more recent times, the “fake it until you make it” or the “acting as if” philosophy has taken a terminological turn.  It is now also expressed as the “Law of Attraction” philosophy.  Mike Robbins explained the connection between the ideas in the following:

“Acting as if” is about believing in things that don’t currently exist and that there might not be much evidence for.  This is about living a “faith-based” life, not an “evidence-based life.”  The term “faith-based” often gets used in a political, moral, or social context when talking about initiatives or organizations that are connected with the church or some specific organized religion.  However, being a faith-based person, while it can and often does encompass our religious beliefs and our spiritual practices, is even broader than this.

When we choose to live with a strong faith in things not seen, nor proven, and not guaranteed—we tap into the power of the possible and we supercede the literal and the predicable.  (Robbins)

Biblical writers, by way of contrast, insisted that men put any belief to the test so as to determine whether or not it was true (cf. Isaiah 41:21; 1 Thessalonians 5:21 1 Peter 3:15; John 8:32, et al.) Once this determination has been made, then one's beliefs and actions are to be brought into line with the truth (that is, the reality involved). This obligation (and, it is a mandate from the Lord) cannot be fulfilled at all by the "practical theist." He defines faith as, "living as if the position one accepts is true." This is an agnosticism of the rankest sort, and an utter perversion of biblical faith. The same God who is the source of faith and the One who defines faith said: “Prove all things; hold fast that which is good” (1 Thessalonians 5:21), and "Produce your cause, saith the Lord; bring forth your strong reasons” (Isaiah 41:21).   Biblical faith is non-existent in the absence of adequate evidence.  One philosopher-theologian correctly observed:

I have just opened a learned and authoritative textbook of the Christian Faith, and it says: "We ought not to believe the truth of any statement without evidence." That is as much a matter of common sense for Christians as for anyone else. Plainly, then, the idea of "faith" as a sort of admission ticket to the company of those who accept a whole lot of things without proper evidence will not do. . . .  The whole notion of believing on inadequate evidence is alien to Christian thinking.  (Blamires 1-2)

This is precisely what our “as if” theorists are suggesting that we do:  believe in God without adequate evidence.  There is an excellent example of “practical theism” in the biblical record.  It is found in a context where the issue is “God” vs. “gods,” and is found in Isaiah 40-46.  A crucial stage in the argument is reached in Isaiah 41:21-24, 28:

“Present your case,” the Lord says. “Bring forward your strong arguments," The King of Jacob says. Let them bring forth and declare to us what is going to take place; As for the former events, declare what they were, That we may consider them, and know their outcome; Or announce to us what is coming. Declare the things that are going to come afterward, That we may know that you are gods; Indeed, do good or evil, that we may anxiously look about us and fear together. . . . Behold, you are of no account, And your work amounts to nothing; He who chooses you is an abomination. . . . "But when I look, there is no one, And there is no counselor among them Who, if I ask, can give an answer.   (Isaiah 41:21-24, 28)

These people (the false prophets) both believed and acted “as if” their gods were real.  But, of course, they were not.  Our modern theorists may well have urged them to continue on in their “faith-based” viewpoints.  Their faith “paradigm” would help them tap into the “realm of the possible,” whether or not such “gods” actually existed!  However, the Bible points out that this issue is to be settled on the basis of adequate evidence, not mere subjective opinion.  And, in this particular instance, the adequate evidence is predictive prophecy. 

“Practical theism” is heresy, and an agnosticism of the rankest sort. Christianity makes a demand upon man so exclusive and so radical that it literally cannot be recommended to anyone on any other ground than the fact that it stands the test of hard evidence, and the fact that as a result of standing up to the test, Christianity is true!  We ought not to believe the truth of any statement without adequate evidence is the hallmark of genuine Christian theism.  We must refuse to play the “as if” game!

Conclusion

Dear reader, could you possibly, in your wildest dreams, think of Paul preaching the God who may be but who may not be?   Would you surmise that Peter would try to cure any difficulties in belief experienced by others by suggesting that they just “act as if” God really exists, and “act as if” Jesus the Christ really is His Son, and that the Scriptures really are His word?  Is that what we find Peter doing in the Pentecost sermon recorded in Acts 2:14ff?  I am fully persuaded that you will not find the apostles suggesting such nonsense to anyone, much less preaching it themselves. “Practical atheism” is inconsistent, lukewarm Christianity at best, or completely cold Christianity at the worst.  It cannot be right for a “theist” to believe and behave no differently than the atheist! And, “practical theism” is but the latest in a whole host of psychological heresies being pushed upon a gullible and unsuspecting public.  This, along with Kantian epistemology and a host of other problems (such as the “love yourself first” philosophy) have weakened the Christian faith to such an extent that it is hardly able to stand up against the “wiles of the devil” (cf. Ephesians 6:10ff.).

 

WORKS CITED

Blamires, Harry. On Christian Truth. Ann Arbor: Servant Books, 1983.

Groeschel, Craig. The Christian Atheist. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010.

Kelly, George. “The Language of Hypothesis: Man’s Psychological Instrument.” Clinical Psychology and Personality :The Selected Papers of George Kelly. Ed. B. Maher. New York: John Wiley, 1964.

Raskin, Jonathan D., and Murane, Laurie Ann. “Philosophy of ‘As If.” The Internet Encyclopedia of Personal Construct Psychology. 15 Feb. 2004. Web. 3 Dec. 2012.

Robbins, Mike. “The Law of Attraction: How to Act ‘As If.’” Huffington Post.com.  25 Mar. 2010. Web. 3 Dec. 2012.

Shelly, Rubel.  “Atheists on Church Rolls.”  The Preacher’s Periodical 3:2 (July 1982).