Psalm 14:1 is one of the best-known verses (by Christians) in the entire collection of Psalms. “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God.’” How foolish those ivory tower atheists are! What utter folly spouts from the mouth and pen of Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens. We feel quite confident that they will one day stand before the final judgement seat and discover that there is, indeed, a God.
But the psalm takes on a slightly new meaning when we remember that it was not written to intellectuals in an enlightened, postmodern age. It was written in an age in which religiosity was assumed. More significantly, it was written primarily to God’s covenant people, among whom, it is safe to assume, there was little thought of atheism as we tend to think about it. The atheism that David envisioned was probably not intellectual or philosophical atheism but what Stephen Charnock called “practical atheism.”
In practical atheism, says Charnock, the atheist “regards [God] as if he had no being.” This atheism finds root “in his heart, not with his tongue, nor in his head.” He does not rationally reject God but “wished there were not any, and sometimes hoped there were none at all.” Charnock explains further: “Men may have atheistical hearts without atheistical heads. Their reasons may defend the notion of a Deity, while their hearts are empty of affection to the Deity.”
This appears to be the kind of atheism that David envisaged. The atheism is not manifested in written dissertations or social media debates but in “abominable deeds” (v. 1). Though he acknowledges God in his head, the atheist lives as if God is not paying attention—as if God is not there. The outcome is the same as if he intellectually or philosophically denied God’s existence: He lives as a practical atheist—without concern to God or his commands. He is indifferent to God’s presence. Because he has not guarded his devotion, he finds himself falling into sins and corrupt deeds he knows he should avoid.
We live with the ever-present danger of practical atheism. We must guard our devotion—by the corporate gathering of the saints, by personal devotional time, by meaningful fellowship with the saints.
Are you tempted toward complacency, procrastination, and laziness? Do you know the pull of sexual temptation? Is substance abuse a particular temptation? Do you struggle with irrational fear and distrust as you allow your mind to be flooded with all sorts of lies and fear-mongering tactics? Perhaps you are tempted to be curt with and unkind to others—in person or via digital channels?
I don’t know your particular temptations, but the human heart is predictable, and when we are not careful to intentionally guard our devotion, we easily fall prey to temptations to practical atheism.
But it’s not all doom and gloom. There is good news. The good news is simply this: The God of the Bible is a God who loves to save, who loves to redeem, who loves to deliver. “Oh, that salvation for Israel would come out of Zion! When the LORD restores the fortunes of his people, let Jacob rejoice, let Israel be glad” (v. 7). Temptations to practical atheism are sure to strike, but the gospel has the power to strike down those very temptations.
How have you lived like a practical atheist? What do you need to change in order to guard your devotion? Look to Christ and pray fervently to him for the power to overcome the temptations you face to live as if there is no God.