Thursday, March 7, 2019

Two Types of Atheism

 I read a comment on Ps. 10 recently that struck me as a little odd. The pertinent portion is Ps. 10:2–4, 11, which says,

In arrogance the wicked relentlessly pursue their victims;
let them be caught in the schemes they have devised.
For the wicked one boasts about his own cravings;
the one who is greedy curses and despises the Lord.
In all his scheming,
the wicked person arrogantly thinks,
“There’s no accountability,
since there’s no God.”…
He says to himself, “God has forgotten;
He hides His face and will never see.”

The commentary explained the difference between “metaphysical atheism” and “practical atheism,” and said that the latter was in David’s view. That is fair enough, insofar as it goes. There is a difference between crafting an explanation for why God does not need to exist (metaphysical atheism) and simply living as if He is not there (practical atheism). I think what bothered me was the implication that these verses cannot apply to both types.

Maybe that was not what the author intended, but that was how I took it and I am not comfortable with where that leads. It seems to say no ancient person could have conceived of the universe without a belief in the supernatural. The corollary, then, is that thoughtful atheism is a modern invention. Maybe it is a leap in logic, but I feel like that is not very far away from saying this psalm has nothing to say about the atheism we see today. And that is where I have to make my objection.

Two Actual Types of Atheism

I’m of the opinion that there are only two types of atheism, both of which are usually present in its adherents. There is the atheism that does not want there to be a God, and there is the atheism that is no longer willing to wait for Him. David had the first type in mind in the verses I shared above, but he also suggests the second type in Ps:10:1:

Lord, why do you stand
so far away?
Why do you hide in times of trouble?

Some people, when they become weary of the struggles in life, stop asking these questions and instead conclude that God is not there to listen. And as much of this psalm goes on to show, that does make life easier in a perverse way. If you act like there is no God, no judgment to fear, then it gives you license to act however you please. I do not have to place limits on my depravity if there is no one to hold me accountable for it.

So what does this have to do with modern metaphysical atheism? Simply that I am uncertain there is actually any such thing. Rather, I think it could be argued that it is nothing more than practical atheism wrapped in sophistry. What sound like ideas are really just excuses to act as you please. I like the way J. Budziszewski puts it:

One cannot predict in advance what stories one will tell himself to make believe that he does not know the reality of God and his obligation to Him; every agnostic and atheist devises a different set of plausibility gambits, a different pattern of omissions, forgetting, and avertings of gaze (The Line Through the Heart, 2009, p. 34).

The philosophy of atheism, at root, is not about working from the evidence to a conclusion. It is about deciding beforehand that they want to set aside the standards of nature and nature’s God whenever it pleases them. Then they work backward to justify this view and generally ignore any ideas to the contrary. It ultimately comes down to lifestyle, not to truth.

Application of the Psalm

That is why I think the psalmist’s words apply equally well to either form of atheism. The truth is, one is nothing more than a veneer. Real atheism is about behavior, and it can be practiced by someone who calls himself a Christian just as well as by someone who calls himself an atheist. We do not have to view modern atheism as a unique challenge. It is the same old one as always. People do not want to be told they are guilty of anything.

The sad thing is the self-deprivation of it. When you come to accept the accountability to God, then you can receive the reliability of God. David goes on to explain this in Ps. 10, but I like the way he describes it in Ps. 11:4–5:

The Lord is in His holy temple;
the Lord—His throne is in heaven.
His eyes watch;
His gaze examines everyone.
The Lord examines the righteous,
but He hates the wicked
and those who love violence.

As Scripture says in another place, “It is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Heb. 10:31). But when you place your life in His hands, you come to recognize the security of being there. The Lord is on His throne, and no power can force Him off of it. He is seeing to it that everything works in such a way as to bring Him glory, either as it is redeemed in His grace or destroyed in His justice. Our finite minds cannot comprehend that process in its entirety, but we can see it in glimpses when we are willing to look. The order and the wonder of the universe leave no reasonable doubt.

God has not stopped watching. We can convince ourselves He has, but that does not make it true. It only makes us vulnerable to the condemnation we hope to avoid. Or instead, we can embrace the Lord’s vigilance. We can know that He sees us and that there is love in His eyes. He sent His Son to provide the only way of escape from the chains of ignorance we load ourselves down with and to make relationship with Him possible. Every atheist, of whatever description, believes that God is without sight. But in fact, humans are the ones who cannot see. Praise God that Christ can restore the eyes of the blind.

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