Are we practical atheists?

May 24, 2017 by

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There are people who say they don’t believe in God.

In our own moments of faith and confidence, we look at them wonderingly and think they must be crazy deluded, or else they’re lying to us.

Because God is obvious.

He’s everywhere, all around us, as far distant as the stars and as close as our own heartbeat. The world could not function without him; there would be no pleasure, no thought, no morality, no meaning. Reality would be a myth; there could be no existence.

But then . . . we see other people, and they are church people, full of programs and plans. And we think that that even though they say they believe in God, they must be lying. Because they don’t. Not really. Not down in the deep places of the heart where believing in God actually makes a difference in a life.

I read a blog post once that I will never forget. In it a man was talking about the church. He was saying that young people are leaving the church, and what can we do to hold them? We need better programs, he said. A more relevant message. If we don’t figure something out soon, then soon there will be no church.

And I could see, clear as glass, that this man did not believe in God.

He did not believe, from what I could tell, that God had created the church or that God sustained the church. He did not believe in the call or empowerment of the Spirit or in the final reigning victory of Christ.

He believed only in programs and in the efforts of man to fix those programs. By extension, he must have believed that man owned the programs and, by further extension, that man had created the whole concept of the programs, and the whole concept of God, in the first place.

I learned a term for this phenomenon. It is called practical atheism.

Practical atheism is saying you believe in God, and then living a life that shows differently. It is investing in programs instead of prayer. It is saying you trust your children to God, and then building a system of elaborate rules and regulations to hold them in place. It is saying you believe God holds the stars in his hands and maps the course of the future, and then going around stoop-shouldered, like Atlas, with a stone in your heart and the world on your shoulders.

It is stepping gingerly into the glass box from the Sky Deck of Willis Tower, like my sister and I did recently, and believing that if you stomp too hard or lean against the glass, you will plummet 1,353 feet to earth. Or it is refusing to step out at all, because while in theory you believe that three layers of glass half an inch thick will hold you . . . in reality you just can’t take that chance.

Practical atheism is trying very hard. It is walking the line. It is holding your breath. It is worrying and fretting and building walls. It is the opposite of peace, of letting go, of relationship.

Don’t be a practical atheist. We have too many in the world already, and everything they do is man-centered and man-sustained and exhausting.

Relax. Lean in. Stomp your feet to test the soundness of the floor. We have a God who can hold us.

Lucinda Miller writes from rural Rusk County, Wis., and attends Sheldon Mennonite Church, an unaffiliated conservative Mennonite church, down the gravel road from her house. She blogs at Properties of Light, where this post first appeared.


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